Water spills, leaks and floods are a common occurrence that can have a costly impact on public and workplace safety and building operations. Immediate disruptions might arise from power failures, facility equipment or system failures, property damage and communication failures. In the longer term, there may be litigation, reputation damage and associated fallout.
Organizations must ask the right questions in advance of emergencies to better prepare the workplace and be in a position to recover quickly from interruptions. Employers and property and facility managers can face regulatory actions and civil litigation if they do not effectively prevent or manage situations caused by facility flooding.
Internal floods are considered a typical occurrence within the property and facility management industry. Possible sources include domestic water lines, chilled water (chemically treated) lines, fire protection sprinkler pipes and, of course, sewer lines.
Prevention and mitigation
Begin with an internal flooding risk assessment. This is a probabilistic risk assessment of flooding and other recognized flood sources as a result of pipe or tank failure, which will provide due diligence.
Sewer openings and drains within restaurant and food court environments should be “snaked” for build-up of grease and debris – often due to unauthorized disposal. This should be routinely done at three-month intervals.
Property and facility management and building security teams should monitor local weather forecasts and alerts, and be aware of inclement weather warnings. A few simple steps when Environment Canada issues rainfall or thunderstorm warnings or watches can help to prevent flood penetration from outside sources. For example, be sure to clear debris from storm sewer grates at the exterior perimeter of the building since, depending on the season, these grates can be clogged with a combination of snow, ice, leaves, discarded garbage and cigarette butts.
Pre-identify domestic water line isolation valves for rapid access in the event of a break. Using up-to-date drawings and floor plans, highlight these areas and train on-site security and operational personnel on shut-off procedures.
Store buckets, safety barriers and tape, squeegees and absorbent materials in convenient locations for easy access. A small “waterbed” pump and garden hose are effective and inexpensive investments for use during such emergencies that cost less than $100.
Mechanical and electrical equipment should be installed on raised platforms or slabs. The same applies to the storage of all consumables, storage materials and retail merchandise stock.
Response and safeguards
Policies and procedures for response and recovery allow for the rapid isolation and recovery from internal leaks and floods. For example, clear, concise procedures and tactical use drawings for accidental sprinkler releases are rarely found within the property and facilities management industry, yet such incidents are considered a major risk to building operations and property conservation.
A sprinkler isolation valve may be more than 1,000 feet away from the head and, even after it’s closed, water can continue to run for up to 15 minutes, spilling 150 litres per minute. If personnel can cut that time in half, they will have prevented a lot of damage and the cost of those damages. Building staff and security personnel can respond more quickly and effectively when they know where the isolation valves and secondary valves are located, and the steps to take to stop a broken sprinkler head from releasing water at the source.
Safety and training is of the utmost importance for building and security staff who are likely to be the first responders. Hazards in the water are a concern. Personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, boots and protective clothing may be necessary to comply with both emergency management best practices and Occupational Health & Safety requirements.
Notably, chilled water contains an assortment of anti-corrosion chemicals, scale inhibitors and biocides, while floods involving sewage water are particularly problematic.
In the recovery stage, a root cause analysis is recommended to investigate causes and inform an action plan to prevent and mitigate future similar floods. This process supports and engages building operations personnel in their roles and responsibilities, and provides documented due diligence for liability and insurance requirements.
A risk assessment for both short and long-term impacts comes next. For example, undetected contamination may be present in walls, cavities, electrical appliances and insulation. These can pose an immediate health and safety concern and/or have long-term effects like mould, increased allergens causing occupant complaints, odours, corrosion and electrical faults.
Tenant and employee communications are a vital component of the emergency management plan and must be considered at all stages during a major flood emergency. This might include updates on building access and workplace operational status, and issues such as potential development of workplace hazards caused by the flood.
Communications tend to be directed to the media, public and authorities during major building incidents but employee communication should not be neglected. Effective communication supports employee safety, morale and associated decision-making, and corporate reputation at the employee level. All this translates into a direct communication pipeline to the public.
Spill and leak monitoring
Meanwhile, simple liquid spills – everything from water to hydraulic fluid to soft drinks – are one of the most common hazards within property and facility management. In Ontario alone, the Workers Safety & Insurance Board reports more than 17,000 lost-time injuries due to slips, trips and falls in the workplace and, on average, more than 80 people are injured every day. It’s estimated that a single WSIB claim can cost an organization nearly $12,000 and that does not include potential lawsuits and damages.
Whether caused by minor leaks or spillage of retail products, policies should be in place for reporting, safeguarding and effective clean up of spills. Security patrols can help with this through documentation of times, locations and frequency of spills, which can also offer evidence of an ongoing prevention program and due diligence during possible litigation.
Ostensibly minor leaks within mechanical rooms, janitor closets, common areas and ceilings should be seen as advance warning of a potential or pending crisis. If, for example, building and security personnel check routinely and report a small puddle collecting beneath a piece of equipment, that may prevent larger leaks or spills, possible slips and falls or a costly equipment failure in the future.
Rapid detection and reporting of minor leaks also prevents undue waste of water and energy, and supports cost management efforts.
Jason D. Reid is the principal consultant for National Life Safety Group, a provider of facility life safety and emergency management services.