October through December is wildfire season in California. Firefighters risk their lives to fight wildfires, but that is not where the danger ends. The cleanup process in the aftermath of wildfires poses an endless list of additional safety hazards. Along with the risks posed by smoldering fires, or even new fires, come many other life-threatening dangers.
According to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, it is crucial for employers to make sure that firefighters and cleanup crews were fully informed about potential hazards. If you are a member of a cleanup crew, you should receive training to recognize dangers and how to protect yourself from injury.
Common cleanup hazards
An extinguished fire continues to pose significant threats because smoldering debris and wood could re-ignite in the presence of oxygen or anything flammable. That hazard, along with any or all of the following, can cause severe work-related injuries and threaten your safety:
- Confined spaces: Areas with limited entry or exit openings have limited airflow, and the lack of oxygen, presence of toxic gases and potentially explosive conditions can be deadly.
- Carbon Monoxide: Using diesel- or gasoline-powered pressure washers, pumps and generators in insufficiently ventilated areas can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and deadly gas that could overwhelm and kill workers in minutes.
- Hazardous Materials: Workers can come across drums, tanks, equipment, pipes and other containers that contain propane, pesticides or other hazardous materials.
- Respiratory Hazards: Along with exposure to toxic fumes, cleanup workers face respiratory hazards through exposure to the burned material break-down products, soot, ash and other materials that could affect breathing and irritate airways.
- Unstable Structures: Fire damage to sidewalks, walkways, structures, roads and parking lots may cause structural damage that might not be immediately visible.
- Heavy Equipment: Only trained operators must work on bulldozers, tractors, backhoes and other equipment used in the cleanup.
- Musculoskeletal Hazards: Lifting and carrying heavy objects can cause strains, sprains and ligament tears, and back, shoulder, knees and hand injuries.
- Electrical Hazards: Power can return unexpectedly after an outage, and burns, electrical shocks, falls and even electrocution can result from unintentional contact.
- Heat: Cleanup workers risk heat-related conditions like heat exhaustion, heatstroke, heat cramps and fainting.
- Worker Fatigue: Injury and illness risks increase when workers become fatigued from working long hours, along with mounting physical exhaustion and stress about damaged personal property and potential work layoffs.
Cleanup workers after wildfires put their lives on the line. You might find comfort in knowing that the California workers’ compensation insurance program will have your back if you should suffer illness or injuries. An experienced workers’ compensation attorney can provide valuable support and guidance throughout the benefits claims process. Compensation typically covers medical expenses and lost wages, along with additional benefits for injuries that left you with permanent disabilities.