Hurricane season officially begins June 1, and if predictions from the National Hurricane Center are correct, 2016 could be a rough year for residents and businesses in Orlando. For employees who work in commercial buildings near the water or areas with weak drainage systems, their employers will have to ensure this hurricane season doesn’t put them in harm’s way.
Shifting weather patterns associated with the weather pattern La Nina could make it twice as a likely for a hurricane to hit Florida this year, according to the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Orlando. As a result, Mayor Buddy Dyer and the City of Orlando are urging residents and businesses to get informed and prepared.
While most people associate hurricane-related workplace injuries and workers compensation claims with outdoor workers, such as those who aid in natural disaster clean-up efforts, small businesses and office workers are also at risk of injuries when they return to work after a hurricane.
Here are some workplace injuries associated with hazardous conditions caused by hurricanes.
If the flooding from a hurricane is severe enough, it could potentially compromise the structural integrity of a building. Before any workers are allowed back into the building, the conditions of the building must be assessed to ensure the building is structurally safe to enter. This precaution is to prevent any workers from becoming injured or killed due to the hazardous conditions.
Even if the structure of a building is sound, there could be other issues. Hurricane winds can also potentially knock down windows and doors, littering the office floor with glass, splinters, and other debris. Workers' bosses also to need to ensure their employees aren't going to get injured by these hazards as well.
Employers should contact their utility company to disconnect power if there is a severe hurricane or flood warning. If this procedure is forgotten, or if employers are unable to connect with their utility providers, there is a risk of electrical hazard even if the circuit breaker is shut off, as the circuit breaker could be damaged by the flood.
Employers should have their utility company disconnect power at the meter before anyone steps into the water, to prevent a potentially fatal electrocution accident. This process must be completed before anyone sets foot into the building.
Exposure to Biohazards
If there was a sewage backup caused by hurricane flooding, employers must ensure that no employees enter the building, and that only specially trained clean-up workers in personal protective equipment are allowed into the area. As sewage contains infectious micro-organisms, employees are not allowed handle materials that have not been cleaned and disinfected properly.
In addition to sewage, employers should be concerned about mold. It only takes three days for mold growth to start in office buildings impacted by flooding damage. Employers should ensure only trained personnel are allowed access as the flooded building is dried and disinfected. This clean-up procedure is essential for ensuring long-term indoor air quality and preventing allergic reaction and disease among employees, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Exposure to Chemicals
There is a risk of exposure to lead and asbestos released from building materials when older buildings incur flood damage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If the office building was built before 1980, it is prudent for employers to check if their building has asbestos-containing building materials (ACM), and if so, to what extent these materials were damaged by the flood. Hurricane season lasts until September, so employers are encouraged to begin preparing their business for hurricanes before it is too late. Workers should be aware of their workplace safety rights going into hurricane season, too, and keep in mind that if they're injured while on the job they are entitled to certain benefits.