Flood Risk Management

Recent storms have given rise to serious flooding in parts of the UK. Floods are one of the most common natural disasters. Statistics indicate that businesses are more likely to be flooded than hit by fire and according to many in the scientific world, climate change means that the flood risks are rising.

Indeed, the Climate Change Risk Assessment published by DEFRA in spring 2012 identified flooding as the biggest climate risk faced by British businesses. In a particularly wet summer in 2007, approximately 7000 businesses were flooded.

As well as the obvious business disruption or interruption that can be caused by flooding, there are health and safety risks that need to be identified and managed in a proportionate way, both before and after a flooding incident.

Flooding incident

Sources and impacts

Global warming is often cited as the main reason for flooding within the UK, and it is thought that the UK will see increases in seasonal temperatures and incidence of stormy weather. However, there are other factors that can increase flooding risks, including the characteristics of rivers, streams and groundwater; blocked, overloaded or broken drainage systems; and variable sea levels. Other factors that increase risks are the development and urbanisation of flood plains and flood risk areas that have altered the natural landscape. In addition, paved, concreted or tarmac areas act as a flood channel, intensifying the flood.

The extent that flooding affects commercial property is dependent upon a number of factors, including the type of flooding along with the speed flooding occurs, depth and duration. Additional variables are the type of property, the activities taking place, the speed of response to the flooding situation and the action taken during and after a flooding incident. Evidence also suggests that seasonal variations can affect the extent of damage suffered.

As well as damage to premises, plant and equipment, an organisation may lose stock and supplies and find that it cannot trade while the damage is repaired or goods are replaced. Recovery from flooding can take a considerable period of time, with the drying-out process lasting many months, if not years.

There can be significant health and safety issues associated with flood risks:

  • Site damage. Grounds are subject to erosion and scour, leading to possible loss of soil and damage to paved areas and access routes. Large amounts of debris and sediment can accumulate on the site, especially against fences, causing instability.
  • Structural damage. In fast-flowing waters, foundations can be eroded, destabilising or collapsing walls and floors. Sediment build-up can also create heavy loading on floors and walls.
  • Saturation damage. In walls and floors this can lead to plaster, drywall, insulation, and tile damage, mould and moisture problems, wood decay and metal corrosion.
  • Utility system damage. Electrical wiring and equipment that can be shorted and their metal components can corrode. Oil storage tanks can be displaced and leak, polluting the areas around them.
  • Health threats. These threats are both short- and long-term, with pollutants or contaminates being present in the flood water and mould/mildew growth through dampness.

Assessment and management

According to the Government, “understanding what the risks of flooding are for your business will help you decide what to do about it”. The risk assessment will need to consider factors based upon the principle that for a flooding risk to exist, three elements are required:

  1. A source of water (heavy rainfall).
  2. A pathway for the water (groundwater, sea, river, drainage system, etc).
  3. A receptor (the commercial property of the business).

When considering the management of risks, the prevention or mitigation of flooding in respect of the former two are for policy and procedures at a regional, national and international level. However, at a local level, organisations will have to consider what action to take in respect of the receptor, i.e. the business property. This will include:

  • Taking steps to limit potential damage to the property through use of sustainable drainage systems, physical barriers, non-return valves on drainage systems, etc
  • The preparation of a plan on how to deal with flooding, including the training of staff in the actions required to be taken following a flood.

The flood risk plan should include the procedures deemed necessary to ensure the safety of employees and other occupiers in the event of imminent danger arising from flooding. This may include evacuation procedures from the building and the site. The plan may also include task allocation to manage the flood impacts.

As with any risk assessment process, cost/benefit decision-making will play a role in the final decision on what, if any, measures to take. Consider whether or not the cost of implementing flood risks controls will:

  • Significantly reduce financial losses, damage to property and business interruption
  • Help compliance with regulatory requirements for all stakeholders
  • Reduce exposure to civil or criminal liability and assist in obtaining viable, affordable insurance
  • Enhance the organisation’s reputation and credibility with stakeholders.


Post-flood issues

Where measures have not been deemed reasonable or have not prevented flood waters, employers may have to consider a number of issues including health and safety. These will include cleaning the premises, drying out the property and its contents, disinfecting the property and its contents, disposing of waste, damage estimation, repairs and insurance claims.

Safety will be the first priority. Even if a building looks safe, it may have suffered structural damage, and there are other risks to consider, e.g. electrical shock if the mains electricity has not been disconnected. There may also be hidden dangers in the floodwater such as debris (sharp objects), raised manhole covers and contaminants or pollutants.

When safe to do so, an assessment of the damage caused will have to be undertaken. This should consider both structural damage to the building and potential health risks during clean-up and recovery.

Suitably qualified staff following a safe operating procedure should undertake a survey. This will most probably include a loss adjuster from the insurer who will confirm what repairs and replacements are needed and covered by the insurance policy. At the same time, gas and electricity supplies can be made safe.

Following this survey, the necessary remedial action can be planned. Again, health and safety issues must be considered during any remedial works, either undertaken by staff or by contractors.

In respect of the immediate clean-up, with pollutants, contaminates and hazardous foreign objects being present, suitable personal protective clothing will be required and good hygiene procedures adopted. Any materials removed that are potentially hazardous must be stored and disposed of in an appropriate manner.

Electrical and gas systems may have to be inspected and repaired by competent persons. Where disinfection takes place on-site, the normal COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, as amended) requirements will also have to be met.

Longer-term, the employer may have to monitor the premises for signs of continuing issues. This may include the growth of moulds or mildew that can cause health issues as well as potential structural issues as the premises are subject to the drying process.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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