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Infection risks from flood recovery and response work

Workers who are involved with flood response and recovery work may be exposed to infection risks from contact with:

  • floodwater
  • soil
  • mud
  • sewage
  • animal, household or industrial waste
  • animal carcasses.

An infection that is caused by carrying out work is a notifiable incident.

Gastrointestinal illnesses (‘gastro’)

People can get gastrointestinal illness with vomiting and diarrhoea from contact with contaminated floodwater and from consuming contaminated food or drink.

Skin infections

People with non-intact skin (e.g. cuts, abrasions and rashes) can get skin infections from contact with germs in floodwater.

Mosquito-borne diseases

Mosquito numbers can increase after floods. Mosquitoes can spread diseases such as Ross River virus and Barmah Forest virus. Read more about mosquito-borne diseases

Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is a disease of animals such as cattle, pigs and rodents. People can become infected from contact with animal urine or floodwater, freshwater (e.g. rivers and creeks), soil and vegetation that is contaminated with animal urine. The bacteria gain entry through non-intact skin and the lining of the eyes, nose or mouth. Infection can also occur from being submerged in contaminated water and from consuming contaminated food and water.

Leptospirosis commonly causes an influenza('flu')-like illness but some people develop more severe disease.

Melioidosis

Melioidosis is caused by bacteria that live naturally in the soil. Heavy rain and floods can cause the bacteria to rise to the surface. People can become infected from contact with floodwater, soil and mud. The bacteria gain entry through non-intact skin and the lining of the eyes, nose or mouth. Infection can also occur from breathing in infectious aerosols and dust and from aspirating or consuming contaminated water.

Melioidosis causes a range of health effects including:

  • ulcers
  • abscesses
  • pneumonia (an infection of the lungs)
  • septicaemia (an infection of the bloodstream).

People with medical conditions that increase their risk of infection should take special care to avoid contact with potentially contaminated floodwater, soil and mud. This includes those with diabetes, chronic kidney or lung disease, excessive alcohol consumption, and cancers and treatments (such as steroids) which lower immunity.

Tetanus

Tetanus is caused by bacteria that live naturally in the soil. People can become infected if the bacteria gain entry through a tetanus prone wound. This includes wounds that are deep, penetrating or contaminated by dirt, soil or foreign bodies like splinters. Tetanus is preventable by vaccination.

Protecting workers during flood response and recovery work

The following information provides general guidance on ways to manage infection risks during flood response and recovery work. The actual control measures necessary in each situation will depend on factors such as the:

  • nature of the work
  • work environment
  • level of contact with floodwater, soil and mud.

Avoid or minimise contact

Where possible, avoid contact with floodwater, soil and mud as it may contain germs that can cause infection or debris that can cause injury and lead to infection.

Where contact with floodwater, soil and mud is unavoidable, avoid direct contact where possible. For example, use machinery such as an excavator or backhoe to move debris.

Workplace facilities

Provide workers with adequate facilities so that they can maintain good hygiene at work.

Facilities must:

  • be clean, safe and accessible
  • include washing facilities, potable drinking water, eating facilities and toilets.

Personal hygiene

Good personal hygiene practices can help prevent infection. It is important to regularly wash and dry your hands using clean running water, soap and paper towel or air dryer.

Wash your hands:

  • before preparing or consuming food and drink
  • before smoking
  • after contact with floodwater, soil, mud and other contaminated items
  • after removing personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • before and after first aid and wound care.

If clean running water and soap is not readily available, use a waterless hand sanitiser such as an alcohol-based hand rub that contains at least 60 per cent alcohol, and then wash your hands at the first opportunity. Hand sanitisers do not work properly on hands that are visibly dirty so you may need to use a hand wipe first.

Check for cuts, abrasions and other non-intact skin before starting work. Cover these with a water-resistant dressing and replace the dressing if it becomes wet. Avoid contact with floodwater, soil and mud if you have an open wound that can’t be covered.

If your skin gets contaminated with floodwater, soil or mud, wash the area thoroughly with soap and clean running water. If you get splashed in the eyes or nose, rinse with clean water or saline from a first aid kit. If you get splashed in the mouth, rinse with clean water and spit out.

Food and water can become contaminated if water sources such as the local water supply, rain water tanks or bore water holding tanks are affected, if power has been cut or if food has been in contact with floodwater or rodents. Do not consume food and drink that may be contaminated and have meal breaks in a clean area.

After work, change out of your work clothes and have a shower. Launder work clothes after use.

Clean-up

Thoroughly clean and disinfect surfaces, equipment and other items that have been contaminated by floodwater, soil and mud or that have signs of rodent activity. Discard items that can’t be readily cleaned and disinfected.

Clean items by washing with warm water and detergent and then rinse with clean water. After cleaning, apply a hospital grade disinfectant, leave for at least five minutes and then rinse and dry thoroughly. Do not mix chlorine-based disinfectants with other cleaning products as this may create hazardous gases. Wash and disinfect cleaning equipment after use and allow to dry.

Wash items such as linen and clothing in hot water and detergent or dry clean.

If hosing off mud and dirt, take care to protect your clothing and face from splashes. Where possible, avoid using high pressure washers as this may generate infectious aerosols that can be breathed in.

Keep windows and doors open and use fans to dry out indoor areas to minimise mould growth.

Remove items such as food, rubbish and debris that encourage rodents. Take care when cleaning up dead rodents and their droppings. Avoid stirring up dust in areas with rodent activity by wetting surfaces before cleaning or use an H class rated industrial vacuum cleaner. Avoid dry sweeping and use of compressed air.

Remove potential mosquito breeding sites. Drain stagnant water and remove or empty items that hold water such as tarpaulins, old tyres, palm fronds and pot plant bases.

First aid and wound care

Prompt first aid and wound care, including for minor cuts, is important to prevent infection. Provide first aid facilities for workers and make sure these are properly stocked for the number of people who may require first aid treatment.

If a worker is injured, clean the wound thoroughly using clean water. If there is debris in the wound, remove it carefully using clean or sterile gauze. Apply an antiseptic and cover with a water-resistant dressing to keep the wound clean and dry.

Seek medical advice as soon as possible if a wound:

  • shows signs of becoming infected, including redness, swelling, pain, pus or if you develop a fever
  • is contaminated with floodwater, is a tetanus-prone wound or involves an animal bite as you may need medical treatment and a tetanus booster.

Worker health

Some types of medical conditions can increase a worker’s susceptibility to infection from contact with floodwater, soil, mud and mould. This includes medical conditions and treatments that lower a person’s immunity and some chronic diseases.

Seek medical advice if you have concerns about your health.

Emergency response workers should have up-to-date vaccinations including tetanus vaccination.

Where possible, workers who handle and dispose of animal carcasses such as livestock and native wildlife during natural disasters should have immunity to Q fever.

If you become sick while doing flood response and recovery work, seek medical advice and tell the doctor about your work.

Information, instruction and training

Provide workers with information, instruction and training about infection risks from flood response and recovery work and how to protect against infection.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Wear sufficient PPE to protect against infection.

  • Gloves should be worn if there is contact with floodwater, soil, mud, vegetation or contaminated items. Gloves may include disposable gloves, water resistant gloves, puncture resistant gloves or heavy-duty gloves. Wearing a water-resistant glove under a heavy-duty glove may protect against both floodwater and sharp objects. Wearing wet gloves or repeated use of impermeable gloves, especially in hot and humid conditions, may cause skin irritation. Make sure your hands are dry before putting gloves on. Cotton gloves worn under heavy duty or impermeable gloves may help prevent skin irritation.
  • Safety eyewear should be worn if there is risk of splashes of flood water and mud. Safety eyewear may include safety glasses, safety goggles or face shields.
  • Enclosed footwear should be worn if workers must enter floodwater or walk through mud. Footwear may include sturdy leather or rubber boots but not thongs or sandals.
  • Protective clothing should be worn to protect exposed skin and personal clothing from contamination or splashes. Clothing may include long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, overalls or wet weather gear.

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is generally not needed as a routine measure for flood response and recovery work. Its use depends on the type of work, for example:

  • A particulate respirator (e.g. disposable P2 respirator) should be worn where workers are at risk of breathing in infectious dust and aerosols. This includes cleaning up mud and dirt using a high-pressure washer and when handling and disposing of livestock and native animal carcasses if the person is not immune to Q fever.
  • A respirator with an active charcoal or organic vapour filter may provide some relief against strong odours associated with floodwater and decomposing animal carcasses. Respiratory protective equipment that protects against particulates and organic vapours is available.

To repel mosquitoes and other biting insects, wear light-coloured, loose fitting long pants and a long-sleeved shirt and apply insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin to exposed skin. If using sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first and then the insect repellent. Wearing clothing that is treated with insect repellent provides additional protection.

After use, place single-use PPE in a plastic bag and dispose in the general waste. Do not reuse single-use PPE. Wash reusable PPE with water and detergent and allow to dry.

More information

For work health and safety, visit https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/ or call 1300 362 128.

For human health issues visit www.health.qld.gov.au or call 13HEALTH (13 43 25 84). Seek advice from a general practitioner or local hospital emergency department if you have concerns about your health.

View information about public health disaster management.

For animal health issues, visit www.biosecurity.qld.gov.au or call 13 25 23.

Last updated
09 May 2019

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