FloodsThe Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to comply with hazard-specific safety and health standards. In addition, pursuant to Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, employers must provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Emergency Preparedness Guides do not and cannot enlarge or diminish an employer's obligations under the OSH Act.

Emergency Preparedness Guides are based on presently available information, as well as current occupational safety and health provisions and standards. The procedures and practices discussed in Emergency Preparedness Guides may need to be modified when additional, relevant information becomes available or when OSH Act standards are promulgated or modified.
A major flood can be a serious catastrophe. Federal agencies estimate that about 125 people die every year in the United States because of flooding. Preparing for flood conditions and responding to them effectively can reduce the dangers caused by floods and their aftermath. The following frequently asked questions will help workers understand how floods and responding to floods may affect their health and safety.

General Information

What are some different types of floods?

River flooding: River flooding occurs when heavy rains or rapid snowmelt cause rivers to rise.

Coastal flooding: Coastal flooding may occur due to tidal surges and flash flooding. During hurricanes or other large storms, waves may be much higher than normal and low atmospheric pressure often forces seas to rise above normal in a storm surge. This combination can cause widespread flooding of low-lying coastal areas.

Flash Floods: Flash floods usually result from intense storms dropping large amounts of rain within a brief period. Flash floods occur with little or no warning and can reach full peak in only a few minutes. The effects of these sudden downpours are worsened when terrain will not absorb the recently deposited water.

Ice Jams: In colder climates, ice sheets form on the surface of rivers that are typically flowing lower than normal. As the weather gets warmer and water flows increase, this ice breaks up and gets pushed downstream as huge slabs. When these slabs pile up against obstructions they form a dam, causing pooling of water and flooding upstream of the obstruction.

Dam Failure: Dam failures are potentially the worst flood events. A dam failure is usually the result of neglect, poor design, or structural damage caused by a major event such as an earthquake. When a dam fails, a gigantic quantity of water is suddenly let loose downstream, destroying anything in its path.

What are public warnings for floods, what do they mean, and what should I do?

Flood Watch: Flooding is now possible and the situation could worsen, so watch water levels, stay tuned to local radio or TV for further advisories, alert neighbors, check pets and livestock and reconsider travel plans. A Flood Watch will be issued for situations related to widespread general flooding.

Flood Warning: Take action - the flood is now expected, so put your flood plan into action. A Flood Warning will be issued when inundation of a normally dry area near a stream or other watercourse is expected, or unusually severe ponding of water is expected. At this time you should move pets, vehicles, food and valuables to safety. You should put sandbags or flood boards in place and prepare to evacuate your home by turning off the gas and electricity.

River Flood Warning: River Flood Warnings will be issued when a river at a gauge site is expected to, or has, exceeded flood stage.

Flash Flood Watch: A Flash Flood Watch will be issued for serious situations in which life and/or property are in danger. Flash Flood watch covers flash flooding, widespread urban and small stream, and headwater flood events.

Flash Flood Warning: A Flash Flood Warning will be issued in response to a few hours of locally heavy rainfall, a dam or levee failure, or water released from an ice jam rapidly flooding nearby land.

Urban and Small Streams Flood Warning/Advisory: An Urban and Small Streams Flood Warning or Advisory will be issued when flooding of small streams, streets, and low-lying areas, such as railroad underpasses and urban storm drains, is occurring.

Worker Safety and Health

What workers are at increased risk of injury during floods?

Workers who must respond to flooded areas will be most at risk. This may include utility workers, law enforcement personnel, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, federal, state and local government personnel (such as sanitation and highway workers), and military personnel.

What kinds of safety and health hazards are associated with floods and their cleanup?

Workers can expect to find safety and health hazards throughout the flood zone.

Some of the hazards associated with working in flooded and recently flooded areas include:
  • Electrical hazards
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Musculoskeletal hazards
  • Thermal stresses
  • Heavy equipment operation
  • Structural instability
  • Hazardous materials
  • Fire
  • Drowning
  • Hypothermia due to the cold weather and water exposure
  • Falls from heights
  • Burns from fires caused by energized line contact or equipment failure
  • Exhaustion from working extended shifts
  • Dehydration
  • Biohazards
Where would I expect to find electrical hazards after a flood?

Workers can expect to find standing water present throughout a flood zone. If water has been present anywhere near electrical circuits and electrical equipment, turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse on the service panel. Never enter flooded areas or touch electrical equipment if the ground is wet.

What hazards exist when repairing downed or damaged power lines?

The work activities involved with repairing downed or damaged lines include many of the activities involved in installing and removing overhead lines and general maintenance on overhead lines. The crucial difference is that in emergency conditions, such as winter storms, there are unknown hazards and the potential for changing hazards as work progresses. Under these conditions workers must be extra vigilant and cautious. Such work should be performed by utility company workers or other properly trained workers.

Potential hazards include:
  • Electrocution by contact with downed energized lines, or contacting objects, such as broken tree limbs, in contact with fallen lines.
  • Falls from heights.
  • Being struck or crushed by falling poles, towers, and tree limbs.
  • Being injured in vehicular accidents when responding to an emergency situation.
  • Burns from fires caused by energized line contact or equipment failure.
What protective measures should be utilized when working on or around downed or damaged power lines?

Stay well clear of any downed or damaged power lines. Establish a safe distance from the lines and report the incident to the responsible authority. Only properly-trained electrical utility workers should handle damaged power lines.

Electrical utility workers should first assess the hazards present in order to minimize the chances of exacerbating the situation. Ideally the lines involved should be de-energized, but this may not be possible in all situations.

When working on downed or damaged power lines, electrical workers must utilize proper electrical safety work practices and personal protective equipment.

What hazards exist during removal of downed trees and debris after a flood, and what safety precautions should be taken?

Clearing debris is an important emergency activity after a flood. When floods occur, downed trees can block public roads and damage power lines.

Potential hazards include:
  • Electrocution by contacting downed energized lines or contacting broken tree limbs in contact with fallen lines.
  • Falls from trees.
  • Being struck or crushed by falling tree limbs.
  • Being injured by emergency equipment such as chain saws and chippers.
Proper PPE, including gloves, chaps, foot protection, eye protection, fall protection, hearing protection and head protection, should be used when using chainsaws and chippers to clear downed trees.

Only appropriate power equipment that is built to be used outdoors and in wet conditions should be used. All saws, chippers, and other tools should be used properly and according to their intended application. All equipment should be well-maintained and functioning correctly. In addition, all equipment should have proper guarding, working controls, and other safety features as installed by the manufacturer.

Where would I expect to find carbon monoxide exposures?

Gasoline and diesel powered generators, pumps, and pressure washers all release carbon monoxide, a deadly, colorless, odorless gas. These devices must be operated out of doors and never inside confined spaces.

What musculoskeletal hazards can I anticipate after a flood?

Workers involved in flood preparation and cleanup activities are at risk of back, knee, and shoulder injuries from manual lifting and handling of building materials, sandbags, and fallen tree limbs. To help prevent injuries, use proper lifting techniques and teams of two or more to move bulky and heavy items.

What types of chemical hazards can occur due to flooding?

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.

Why is fire a concern around flooded areas?

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.

What can be done to avoid drowning?

Anytime workers are exposed to moving water, their chances for accidental drowning increase. Even good swimmers are easily overcome by swift moving water. Workers should not work alone, and should wear a Coast Guard-approved personal protection device when working in or near water.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95°F. Standing or working in water that is cooler than 75°F will remove body heat more rapidly than it can be replaced, resulting in hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion. For more information see Princeton University's Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia And Cold Weather Injuries.

What can be done to avoid hypothermia?

Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries. Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-induced illnesses/injuries and what to do to help those who are affected. Train the workforce about cold-induced illnesses and injuries. Select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions. This includes layering clothing to adjust to changing environmental temperatures, providing dry clothing, and wearing a hat and gloves, in addition to underwear that will keep water away from the skin (polypropylene). Take frequent short breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up. Perform work during the warmest part of the day. Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm. Use the buddy system (work in pairs). Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks). Avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, or hot chocolate) or alcohol. Eat warm, high-calorie foods like hot pasta dishes.

Why should I be concerned about exhaustion during a flood response?

Workers involved in response operations are often called upon to work extended hours under stressful conditions. This working environment increases the risk of injury due to inattentiveness and also makes workers more vulnerable to stress-induced illness and disease.

What biohazards exist due to flooding and how can I prevent contamination?

Floodwaters may 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.

Driving in a Flooded Area

What safety precautions can I take if I must drive in a flooded area?

Cars can easily be swept away in just two feet of moving water. Never try to cross flooded roadways if you do not know the water depth or road condition. Roads normally traveled can washout unexpectedly during heavy rains.

What should I do if a flood strands me in my vehicle?

If flood waters rise around a car, it should be abandoned. Passengers should climb immediately to higher ground.


OSHA Flood Cleanup Alerts

NIOSH Warns of Hazards of Flood Cleanup Work. NIOSH Publication No. 94-123.

NIOSH Safety and Health Topic: Storm and Flood Cleanup

National Safety Council Flood Fact Sheet. National Safety Council.

Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia And Cold Weather Injuries. Princeton University.