Disaster Processing Priorities

June 13, 2000
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Professional disaster restorers are in a position to lend organization to the chaos of a fire loss through proper job organization. In this article, we’ll discuss light-to-moderate soot damage. Heavy structural damage may force a contractor to depart from “standard” procedures somewhat, and expand the scope of the loss, along with the aggressiveness of restoration procedures.

Addressing Safety Issues

Before beginning a comprehensive restoration program and before the inspection leading to the establishment of a job scope can be undertaken, obvious or anticipated safety and health hazards should be addressed by a trained and experienced restoration contractor. Potential safety issues on fire losses may include:

Structural Integrity: Before entering a severely damaged structure, contractors should post warning signs, brief insureds about obvious or normally anticipated hazards, and require all restoration workers to use appropriate PPE (hard hats, protective hand and footwear to prevent cuts or puncture wounds).

Toxic/Flammable Gases: The structure should be evaluated and tested, as needed, for the presence of toxic or flammable gasses. These hazards should be eliminated or contained before restoration workers are allowed entry.

Particles: At the outset of a severe loss, and during pack-out/tear-out procedures, a variety of potentially toxic or harmful particles will be present. Workers should be advised to use HEPA respirators/air filters and follow OSHA HAZMAT rules for containing these particles to the primary area of damage. If the entire structure is not involved, damaged areas should be sealed off from undamaged areas, using heavy-gauge plastic sheeting and negative air pressure, to avoid cross contamination. Soot particles (PIC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are respiratory irritants and potential carcinogens.

Electrical Shock: Contractors must ensure that electrical shock hazards are eliminated before entering by turning off electrical service or breakers controlling the flow of electricity to damaged areas. All damaged wiring should be tested with appropriate circuit testers before tear-out or repairs are attempted. Use insulated tools to prevent accidental shock hazards.

Puncture Wounds:

Contractors must ensure that workers are equipped with protective hand and footwear to avoid the potential for cuts or puncture wounds due to the presence of fasteners (nails, screws).

Microorganisms: On severe losses, and especially where water was the extinguishing medium used by fire fighters, the potential for development of toxigenic mold must not be overlooked. Water-soaked materials must be removed safely, as soon as practical. Pockets of saturation must be opened and dried quickly. The structure should be ventilated to avoid stagnant air conditions that promote microorganism growth. Humidity within the structure should be controlled, if possible, to prevent mold amplification. Respiratory protection for all workers is required until potential exposure situations are contained or eliminated. Ultimately, materials must be returned to acceptable moisture content as defined by IICRC S500-99.

Pathogens: Where applicable, restorers must follow OSHA bloodborne pathogen rules and use the proper PPE prescribed to ensure safety in this sensitive area.

Demolition: Demolition of severely damaged materials may be required to contain or eliminate potential safety hazards involving structural integrity for property occupants or restoration workers. During normal demolition procedures on severe fire losses, and especially in older buildings where a quantity of HAZMAT (lead, asbestos, toxigenic mold) may be present, in addition to fire contaminants, hazardous or toxic particles may be released into respirable air. Where practical, severely damaged rooms or areas should be isolated from salvable areas using heavy-gauge plastic sheeting, combined with the use of negative air pressure and HEPA filtration, to prevent cross contamination. All workers entering these areas must be trained in the use of, and equipped with proper PPE.

Chemical Sensitive Customers: Contractors should use air scrubbers/filters, and special cleaning/deodorizing agents and procedures. Disaster victims have a “right to know” about any potentially hazardous chemical, contaminant or procedure present during the course of work processing. Keep customers (insureds, insurance company representatives, where applicable) informed throughout restoration.

Chemicals: All restoration company employees and subcontractors must follow manufacturer approved product label directions and instruction manuals for accurately measuring, mixing, and using restoration chemicals, supplies or equipments. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for any chemical used on the job site should be readily available for anyone with a material interest to inspect and enhance safety.

Equipment: Equipment brought onto the job site must comply with OSHA and UL regulations and standards for its use and maintenance. Proper training in the use of equipment by the restoration contractor, or subcontractor, is required.

Of course, this isn’t an all-inclusive list. Restoration contractors must comply with all municipal and state licensing and code requirements relating to safety, as well as federal OSHA safety and health guidelines as outlined in CFR 1910 Part 20, or appropriate state regulations that exceed federal mandates.

These safety issues have a direct bearing on the quality and sequence of the restoration work effort. Safety compliance also reflects directly on the qualification and professionalism of the restoration contractor. Moreover, failure to comply with basic safety protocols can result in remaining contamination that could impact the safety and health of structure occupants over time.

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