Hazards banner
       Hazards special online report, March 2014
Flood preparation can save lives
When floods hit, workers step up. But whether they are baling out or just wading in to work, they face potentially deadly risks that can only be minimised with preparation, protection and resources. Hazards editor
Rory O’Neill says don’t wait for the next deluge – get a disaster recovery
plan in place now.

UNNATURAL DISASTER  Despite evidence that the Environment Agency, the lead flood defence body, is dangerously under-resourced and struggling to cope, David Cameron’s government is saying goodbye to a further 1,700 EA staff by October 2014 - about 14 per cent of the 12,000-strong workforce.

It’s been bad. The UK has just endured the wettest winter since national records began in 1910.

The deluge spawned an unnatural disaster as pared back, cash starved emergency response services – from firefighters, to coastguards to council clean-up staff and frontline flood defence workers at the Environment Agency – found too few were being called on to do too much.

The fire service has lost nearly 20 per cent of its budget since the coalition government came to power. The Environment Agency, which has already shed 1,150 jobs since 2009, is set to lose another 1,700 by October 2014. The redundancy process was suspended until the floods abated; but the job losses were not stopped.

Preparation is key in disaster mitigation, but the current government has only prepared our emergency response system to fail.

It is a false economy. It may be a while before the records are broken again, but major floods are still a real threat to life and the economy in less extreme years. They present predictable risks to over-stretched emergency responders or those who find their place of work or neighbourhood under water.

The TUC, which has produced a guide to Health and safety in flooded areas, says “every employer should have a ‘disaster recovery plan’ in place, agreed with the union, which should be regularly reviewed.”

It is crucial to have properly negotiated policies in place before disaster strikes. You may be familiar with all the hazards, put floods present them in different and unfamiliar settings and combinations. Clean-up is typically more dangerous than the initial flood.

For non-emergency workers, if in doubt, don’t go out – get advice from your union first. Below are the major risks union safety reps should make sure are covering in that floods and work agreement.




INFECTIONS Flood waters are likely to be contaminated by sewage, creating a risk of infections. Hidden debris can cause cuts, increasing the risk. US safety regulator OSHA notes: “Floodwaters may also contain biohazards due to direct contamination by untreated raw sewage, dead animals, rotting food, etc. Avoiding contact, good personal hygiene practices, medical surveillance, and discarding all food that comes in contact with flood waters are all important controls.”

In a guide to the occupational hazards posed by exposure to sewage in flood water, US workers’ safety group NYCOSH warns: “If sewage is present, it should be assumed that pathogens are present. Pathogens are disease-causing agents, which can be in the form of bacteria (such as E. coli), viruses, mould spores, or protozoans, and which are normally present in large numbers in sewage wastes.”

It notes: “Clean-up workers should be trained and equipped with appropriate personal protective equipment, including rubber boots or equivalent, rubber gloves, splash-proof goggles, full-body protective clothing and, if conditions warrant, respirators. It adds: “Use heavy gloves to protect the hands when handling debris to protect against cuts and scrapes… Double gloving with a waterproof glove under a heavy work glove is the best way to protect against both cuts and scrapes and floodwater exposure.”

Other potentially serious infection risks from exposure to sewage include salmonella and shigella; hepatitis A virus; and agents of typhoid, paratyphoid and tetanus.

OSHA notes water-borne organisms cause similar symptoms, adding: “These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, muscle aches, and fever. Most cases of sickness associated with flood conditions are brought about by ingesting contaminated food or water. Tetanus, however, can be acquired from contaminated soil or water entering broken areas of the skin, such as cuts, abrasions, or puncture wounds.”

It advises: “If a clean-up worker experiences any of the signs or symptoms listed above, appropriate first-aid treatment and medical advice should be sought. If the skin is broken, particularly with a puncture wound or a wound in contact with potentially contaminated material, a tetanus vaccination may be needed if it has been five years or more since the individual's last tetanus shot.”

MOULD Dampness “can promote the growth of fungus and mould which can cause allergies and breathing problems if inhaled,” TUC warns.

OSHA gives more detail: “Mould exposure can cause sneezing, runny nose, eye irritation, cough and congestion, aggravation of asthma, and dermatitis (skin rash). Individuals with allergies, asthma, sinusitis, or other lung diseases and individuals with weakened immune systems are at the greatest risk of health effects from exposure to mould.”

An OSHA factsheet on fungus and floods notes: “Clean-up workers are at increased risk of exposure to airborne fungi and their spores because they often handle mouldy building materials, decaying vegetable matter, rotting waste material, and other fungus-contaminated debris. The fungal material is carried into the respiratory tract when airborne particles are inhaled.”

It advises all workers who may be exposed to mould and fungi to avoid breathing dust (fungal spores) generated by mouldy building materials, crops, and other materials, consider using a suitable disposable respirator, and consider discarding all water damaged materials. “Articles that are visibly contaminated with mould should be discarded,” it says.

RODENTS Rats are a real infection risk, and can be driven indoors during flooding. Emergency response workers can be exposed to their droppings and urine during flood remediation work, particularly when working in or near sewers, ditches, ponds or slow moving rivers. Employers in flood affected areas should check for infestations.

Potential health risks include the serious infection Weil’s disease (leptospirosis), which in some instances can be fatal. Proper protective clothing to prevent skin contact and cuts is crucial in potentially contaminated areas. Clean-up workers developing flu-like symptoms should tell the doctor they may have been exposed.



CHEMICAL HAZARDS TUC advises that chemicals stored on business premises can be affected by water. “In some cases the composition of the material may have changed or hazardous materials may have spilled out. Safety representatives should ensure that employers have verified that any material that could become dangerous as a result of water damage has been checked and, if necessary, disposed of safely.”

Some common workplace substances, like peroxides or alkali metals, react violently with water or even moisture, and can give off toxic gases or can combust spontaneously or explode. Risk assessments should consider potential chemical exposure and reaction problems before workers are put in danger.

Chemical hazards may also make their way out of the workplace and in to someone else’s. For example, OSHA notes: “Liquefied Petroleum Gases (LPG) and underground storage tanks, along with other chemical containers, may break away and float downstream, causing hazards from their released contents.”

CARBON MONOXIDE Petrol or diesel fuelled temporary heaters and power generators quickly produce deadly levels of this invisible and odourless killer.  TUC notes: “Under no circumstances should petrol or diesel generators be used indoors due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.”



FIRE RISKS The US safety regulator warns: “Floods can damage fire protection systems, delay response times of emergency responders and disrupt water distribution systems. All of these factors lead to increased dangers from fire and decreasing firefighter capabilities.” TUC advises that external doors, in particular fire exits, should be checked to ensure that they are usable before any building in a flood-affected area is re-occupied, with fire alarms and emergency lighting systems looked at by a competent person before the premises are used. Water damage to stored chemicals or to electrical services can increase the risks of fire.

ELECTRICAL HAZARDS Water and electricity don’t mix. TUC advises: “Any electrical equipment that may have been affected by floodwater must not be used until it has been checked and verified as being safe by a competent person. The electricity and gas supply should also not be switched on unless it has been similarly checked.”

TREE AND DEBRIS REMOVAL Trees can block roads and damage power lines. Tree removal should only be undertaken by properly trained and equipped specialists and tree surgeons. Fife council was prosecuted in 2013 after school janitor Craig Davies lost his toe while cutting back the branches of a tree in a school yard that had blown down in high winds. Between 2004/05 and 2010/11, chainsaws used in forestry and arboriculture caused five deaths in Great Britain and 131 workers suffered reported major injuries while using sawing and cutting tools.

LIFTING INJURIES US safety watchdog OSHA, which has learned a fair bit about the problem from the colossal damage wreaked by hurricanes, warns that workers involved in “flood preparation and clean-up activities are at risk of back, knee, and shoulder injuries from manual lifting and handling of building materials, sandbags, and fallen tree limbs.” Sufficient, suitably equipped and trained workers are necessary to reduce risks, with alternatives to manual handling prioritised where safe.

EXHAUSTION Emergency response workers may be required to work extended shifts for weeks at a time, in very harrowing conditions. Fatigue can increase the risk of injury due to inattentiveness and also makes workers more vulnerable to stress-induced illness and disease. Proper staffing levels and rest periods are crucial.

Guidance for managing worker fatigue during disaster operations, a 2009 US government guide, notes: “The fatigue and stress that may arise from strenuous work schedules can be compounded by the physical and environmental conditions in the affected area after a disaster: non-existent, damaged, or limited critical infrastructure (roads/traffic signals, utility lines, transportation/distribution of basic necessities, etc.); vegetative, construction, and hazardous debris; flooding; hazardous material releases; and displaced pets, indigenous wild animals, and snakes or other reptiles.” With the possible exception of the reptiles, the same risks are present in the UK.

DROWNING An obvious risk, but one people are likely to under-estimate, as even strong swimmers will struggle to cope in fast-moving water. Debris can dramatically increase the risks. Emergency responders should avoid lone working, and should have access to suitable flotation and other safety equipment.

HYPOTHERMIA Standing or working in cold water can quickly lead to hypothermia. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion. Emergency responders must be provided with appropriate protective gear and be allowed frequent breaks in warm dry conditions to allow the body to warm up.

HEAT Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are serious, possibly deadly, problems which can arise even in cold weather as workers undertaking arduous work wear layers of protective clothing and sometimes other personal protective gear like respiratory equipment. Frequent rest breaks and access to drinking water are essential.



TRANSPORT High winds and floods are a combination that place transport workers at greatly increased risk. Guidance from the union Unite says professional drivers who feel continuing their journey presents a “genuine risk” should find an appropriate place to park and notify their employer immediately. It adds “in the event an employer instructs a driver to continue driving when the driver feels it is unsafe he or she should contact their union representative urgently for advice.”

TRAVEL-TO-WORK In advice to non-emergency workers, TUC says: “People should not drive in flooded areas unless they have to and should never try to drive through floodwater. Not only is there the possibility that a vehicle may be swept away, but floodwater is also likely to be contaminated with sewage.” It adds: “Under no circumstances should an employer ask anyone to travel in a flooded area unless they are part of the emergency services, have been trained in how to deal with such situations, and have full support and back-up.”

HIDDEN HAZARDS TUC says people should not attempt to walk or wade through floodwater to get to work. Its guide notes: “It is very easy to be swept away by currents or come into contact with contaminated water. Even in very shallow water there can still be many hazards underneath the surface, such as uncovered holes. The force of water often removes manhole covers for example.” TUC says that if a building is surrounded by, or threatened by, floodwater and there is any possibility that water has got into the premises, including basement areas, the gas and electricity should be turned off.

EMPLOYER SUPPORT Employers should offer extra support to staff whose homes are partially submerged or who are at risk from floodwater, the TUC says. They should consider allowing staff to use showers and washing facilities at work as well as giving affected workers time off to cope with the problems they face.

RETURN TO WORK Before any return to work in buildings hit by floods, the TUC advises that union safety reps should meet employers to check first that workplaces are safe. No building should be re-occupied until it has been properly inspected and a risk assessment undertaken. This means checking that any affected factory, shop or office is not only dry, but has also been cleaned and disinfected. Employees should not be expected to work without access to fresh water and welfare facilities.






Health and safety in the aftermath of flooding, TUC, February 2014.

Recovering your business safely after flooding, HSE.

Protecting worker and occupant health from sewage in floodwaters, NYCOSH, USA.

Fact Sheets on Natural Disaster Recovery: Flood clean-up, OSHA, USA.

Flood preparedness and response page, including specific guidance on Preparedness and Response/Recovery, OSHA, USA.

Fungi hazards and flood clean-up, factsheet, OSHA, USA.

NIOSH Hazard Based Guidelines: Protective equipment for workers in hurricane flood response, NIOSH, USA.

Suggested Guidance for Supervisors at Disaster Rescue Sites, NIOSH, USA.

Health recommendations for relief workers responding to disasters, NIOSH, USA.

Guidance for managing worker fatigue during disaster operations, National Response Team, USA.

Environment Agency advice on flooding.

Public health England advice on flooding.

UK floods 2014: government response and recovery, Cabinet Office, updated 4 March 2014.

Back to the top




Search Hazards


Major floods present predictable risks to over-stretched emergency responders or those who find their place of work or neighbourhood under water. They present familiar hazards in different and unfamiliar settings and combinations. Clean-up is typically more dangerous than the initial flood. So, it is crucial to have properly negotiated policies in place before disaster strikes.


Biological hazards
- Infections
- Mould
- Rodents
Dangerous substances
- Chemical hazards
- Carbon monoxide
Physical hazards
- Fire risks
- Electrical hazards
- Tree and debris removal
- Lifting injuries
- Exhaustion
- Drowning
- Hypothermia
- Heat
Work organisation
- Transport
- Travel to work
- Hidden hazards
- Employer support
- Return to work


Hazards webpages