More Information and Resources on Disaster Response
Workers deployed for hurricane disaster work need to be aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisonings. CO is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if inhaled. When power outages occur during natural disasters and other emergencies, the use of alternative sources of fuel or electricity for heating or cooking can cause CO to build up in a home, garage, or camper and to poison the people and animals inside. Generators, grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices should never be used inside a home, basement, garage, or camper – or even outside near an open window or window air conditioner.
All relief workers and emergency responders should:
- Never use a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline engine-driven tool (such as a concrete saw, water pump, or compressor) indoors or less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent. One generator produces as much CO as hundreds of cars.
- Never run a generator, pressure washer, or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage, or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open.
- Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove inside a home, tent, or camper.
- Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a garage.
- Learn to recognize the symptoms and signs of CO overexposure: headache, nausea, weakness, dizziness, visual disturbances, changes in personality, and loss of consciousness. Any of these symptoms and signs can occur within minutes of usage.
CDC provides guidance to prevent CO poisoning after a disaster that includes a basic overview on preventing CO poisoning after an emergency, clinical guidance, public safety announcements and other educational materials at https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/carbonmonoxide.html.
Chain Saws/Tree Removal
People use chain saws to clear downed or dangerous trees after natural disasters. Misusing chain saws can seriously injure or kill the chainsaw operator, or others nearby. The resources below give more detailed information.
Chemical Safety During Hurricane Response/Recovery
Flooding and other damage from hurricanes often cause dangers for emergency responders and other disaster relief workers. Chemicals that were normally stored safely could be released to the environment because of the hurricane damage. Responders could be exposed to chemicals in industrial settings, but chemicals stored in residences, retail establishments, or other places could also be dangers.
- The chemicals released depend on the types of facilities in the area, the types of chemicals produced or kept at affected facilities and homes, and the structural damage to facilities and homes.
- Workers should know the hazards of internal combustion engines used inside structures during electrical outages.
- Workers need to know about chemical agents to plan for possible risks from chemical releases. Several chemical databases give detailed information on chemical agents that can be released during emergency response, including how to keep workers from being exposed to these agents.
- The emergency response information from the CDC provides facts, descriptions, and emergency response information from CDC related to over 80 specific chemical agents.
- First responders can use the Chemical Hazards Emergency Medical Management (CHEMM) site, which reports on categories of chemicals based on symptoms of toxicity.
If responders find hazardous chemical containers or leaking materials, they should take measures to protect themselves, such as moving to a safe distance upwind. Responders should also contact hazardous material response workers to evaluate the risk and remove hazardous substances before responders resume work in the area.
Backfeed Power from Portable Generators
Residents may have connected a portable generator to the house. This can cause backfeed where power flows in the opposite direction from its usual flow or voltage can be present on a conductor or associated equipment after it has been disconnected from its normal source. Because of this, workers restoring power to homes may be exposed to electrocution from backfeed power. NIOSH recommends taking the steps below to stay safe when working around sources of electricity.
- Treat all lines as “hot,” unless you know for sure they are no longer hot and are properly disconnected and grounded on both sides of the work area.
- Wear the required protective equipment for the voltage level you may be exposed to.
- Make sure there is a visible open point between the load and the power supply by opening a fused disconnect, fused switch, or by removing a tap jumper if the load permits.
Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance
The Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance™ (ERHMS) framework recommends actions for keeping workers safe in any emergency, large or small, and in any setting, including natural disasters. This information applies to emergency responders and recovery workers, as well as volunteers.
Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance Topic Page, including the ERHMS framework and online trainings
Hurricane and flooding damage can increase the chance of emergency responders falling. Falls from heights (including stepladders and one-story structures) are more likely to result in death—but slips, trips, and falls on the same level happen more often and can still cause serious injury.
Hurricane flooding can disturb fire ants. They cling together and float in floodwaters, and they can bite and sting responders and recovery workers.
Hurricane responders and workers can face heat stress because these storms often strike in tropical environments that are hot and humid. Responders also perform physically demanding tasks and sometimes wear protective equipment and clothing, which can trap heat.
OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool App(Available in Spanish when phone language settings are set for Spanish)
Identifying and Handling Human Remains
Responders and workers can come into direct contact with human remains, where blood and body fluids, feces, and gastrointestinal toxins pose the greatest risk. Human remains can contain viruses such as Hepatitis A, B, C and HIV, as well as bacteria that can cause diarrheal diseases (E. coli, enteritis, cholera, and Shigella). Remains can also carry respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis. Responders and workers should use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect their skin and mucous membranes. Suitable precautions include training in how to use body bags, disposable gloves, and good hygiene practice. Vaccinations can help prevent infections such as hepatitis B and tuberculosis. Some workers may be given antibiotics before possible exposures.
Medical Advice for Relief Workers and Emergency Responders
Workers deployed for hurricane disaster work should have medical screenings before they might be exposed to hazards related to natural disasters. This health screening should report on the baseline physical health, pre-existing medical conditions, emotional health, and on immunization status. Learn more below about medical screening for responders and workers.
Note: Travelers to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have additional vaccinations recommended beyond what is stated in the following two links.
Health Information and Vaccination Information for Travelers to:
Mold exposure and damp indoor environments have been linked with health symptoms that include asthma, allergies, and respiratory infections. People who have compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions such as asthma may have a higher risk of mold infections and health problems if they perform mold clean-up.
Below are personal protective equipment commonly used to clean up mold.
- NIOSH-approved N-95 respirator (learn more, include how to put on, take off, and check the seal in the respirator section)
- Eye protection, such as goggles
- Clothing, such as long pants and long-sleeved shirts
Motor Vehicle Safety
Most emergency responders drive or ride in a motor vehicle during a disaster response. If you or your employees operate or ride in a motor vehicle as you respond to a hurricane or other disaster, you are at risk of a motor vehicle crash. The risk extends to all vehicles (cars, SUVs, emergency response or power company vehicles, and large trucks) and all workers, whether they are drivers or passengers. The resources below can help you minimize your risk of injuries from motor vehicles.
Personal Protective Equipment
Rescue workers and emergency responders can face many hazards during and after hurricanes and flooding. Responders and their employers can minimize or eliminate these hazards by selecting and using the right personal protective equipment for the type of response.
Selecting and Using Respirators
Responders or employers can minimize or eliminate respiratory hazards by selecting and using the best respiratory protection for the type of response.
Respirator Trusted-Source Information
Section 2: Use of NIOSH-Approved Respirators
NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards
Stress Associated With Traumatic Incidents and Emergency Response
Natural disasters can be traumatic for first responders and recovery workers, who may encounter severely injured children or adults, dead bodies or body parts, and colleagues who are killed as they serve.
The NIOSH Traumatic Incident Stress resource describes stress symptoms (physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral), and it recommends on-site monitoring and maintaining the health of emergency workers after they respond to a traumatic event.
Even in ideal conditions, workers who direct traffic can be seriously injured or killed if a passing vehicle hits them. Workers with no training in controlling traffic may have to direct traffic after roadway incidents or as they respond to the natural disaster. Learn more about directing traffic by viewing the resources below.
In the aftermath of natural disasters, basic necessities such as water, food, medicine, and gas can become scarce. Because of power or Internet outages, local people and businesses may have to use cash instead of credit. These shortages may lead to hostility, looting, and violence. Follow all local and employer-provided guidance to lessen the chance that you will be harmed in violence as you respond to the disaster.
Large operating vehicles and equipment can seriously injure or kill workers-on-foot. Workers can take steps to reduce this hazard. Learn more by using the resources below.
Work Hours and Fatigue
Emergency responders and aid workers often face long shifts and work many hours a week. Working long hours, irregular hours, and at night can cause responders to lose sleep, and this puts their health and safety at risk. Sleep-deprived workers can be seriously injured or killed because of worker errors, vehicle crashes, and illnesses caused by prolonged loss of sleep.
- Page last reviewed: October 10, 2017
- Page last updated: October 10, 2017
- Content source:
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Office of the Director