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August 10, 2015

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Health in the workplace after flooding

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By Michael Cooper, Richfords Fire & Flood

Dallas, Chicago, Kentucky and California have all suffered horrendous flooding in recent months. Communities have been washed away and there has been a great deal of concern about public health. Because of this, state governments are issuing advice about disinfecting and boiling water, using bottled supplies, how to treat cuts if they have been in contact with contaminated water and even to be aware of snakes.

In recent years, major flooding events have also affected many areas of the UK. Due to this fact, there is a similar message about health and safety. Floodwater should always be treated as a danger to human health as it can contain faecal material and harmful bacteria, which can cause serious infections such as Weil’s Disease or Scarlet Fever. Therefore, when it comes to your duty of care, your business must be careful to put in place procedures for dealing with flooding properly.

A busy company needs to avoid interruptions to trade and when the office kitchen develops a leak it is often left to an employee to mop up. But how long had that leak been there before it was noticed and has all the water really been mopped up? The chances are that the water will find ways of seeping away before the mop ever gets to it. It can easily make its way beneath the office floor and therefore a mop, bucket and fan heater will not dry it out. This is when the moisture, trapped in unseen voids, can fester. In very severe cases, this moisture can incubate harmful bacteria such as Legionella.

As well as bacteria, trapped moisture can also provide a perfect environment for mould to grow. Mould species can cause respiratory irritation through air-borne spores or from the dead mould remains inhaled as dust. Some produce mycotoxins to which people can have an allergenic response leading to serious health problems. Therefore, it is imperative that trapped moisture is located and dealt with fast. However, finding it can be a challenge as it may be hidden behind wallpaper or plasterboard. Moreover, premature drying of materials containing mould can cause a sudden heavy release of toxic spores.

For these reasons, the safest option is to engage specialists to locate trapped moisture, assess toxicity, plan a drying regime, and finally decontaminate and sanitise the site. These technicians work alongside loss adjusters and insurers but are also often brought into an office and factory with a direct call from a company’s managers.

Technicians need to ascertain the structure and materials within the affected part of a building and where a leak or moisture is trapped. Sometimes, this may mean removing parts of the floor, wall or ceiling. Once the location and severity is known, then a drying plan can be put into place involving air moving fans, dehumidifiers, and pipework fed into walls and floors to create a flow of very dry warm air.

An important element of assessing health risk after drying is by testing for ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – a chemical found wherever living cells exist. By measuring the relative amount of ATP present on surfaces it is possible to evaluate the level of microbial contamination. It may be necessary also to remove air-borne spores by filtering the air using a High Efficiency Particulate Air Filtration System (HEPA) and carpets may need to be thoroughly vacuumed. In some cases a chemical fog is introduced into the building to kill remaining spores.

Another very important point is to consult with a qualified electrician immediately after water damage. Many businesses might not have a contact to hand and will end up calling around local contractors. This is where a business continuity plan comes in. Does your business have one? If it does, does it include contacts for the electrician, plumber and damage management company?

Michael Cooper is business development director at Richfords Fire & Flood

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