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Jul 2016

Severe Weather Safety and Natural Disasters: Are you ready for an emergency?


waves crashing on road

Many workplace hazards are completely preventable. Better protocols, more research, and improved training can help eliminate some occupational hazards. However, there are some hazards that will always be present. Natural disasters are one of these hazards. Humans cannot eliminate the chance of one occurring. However, we can prepare ourselves for their impacts. Americans spend much of their time in the workplace. It is crucial that employers are prepared to handle a natural disaster event, and keep their employees safe.

The impacts of natural disasters

Natural disasters should be expected events across the nation. Statistics compiled by ReliefWeb International show why.  On average, natural disasters occur 384 times per year. In 2014, there was a significant drop in events across the United States as only 324 disasters were registered. Still, the United States is in the top 5 countries that experience the most natural disasters. Additionally, in 2014 there were over 7,000 deaths caused by natural disasters. Worldwide, there were nearly 141 million deaths.

Natural disasters take a significant toll on the finances of those affected. According to ReliefWeb, in 2014 natural disasters across the United States resulted in the loss of over 99 billion dollars. While this is a substantial amount of money, it is a 39% decrease from the average of the previous 10 years. Between 2004 and 2013 there was an average of 162 billion dollars in damages.

Natural Disasters and the Workplace

Every workplace needs to be prepared for the occurrence of a natural disaster. Although they do not happen frequently, natural disasters can wreak havoc; especially when victims are ill-prepared. The key to effective preparation is proper planning and adequate training. Instilling these elements into your workplace will equip the workforce to deal with a disaster event.  

Employers should be aware of the types of natural disasters that are common in their area. Identifying which natural disasters are most likely is the first step to formulating an action place. For example: businesses on the southern coast of the United States will have to plan for hurricanes, flooding, and severe lightning storms. Companies on the west coast will have to gear planning towards earthquakes and wildfires. Geography definitely has a role to play in determining what your action plan should look like.

An evacuation plan should be a part of your action plan. However, there may be times when evacuating is the wrong decision, and staying inside is safer. Implementing an action plan that protects employees when evacuation is not an option is crucial. This OSHA worksheet outlines various steps and precautions that need to be taken to protect employees in such situations. Here are a few highlights:

  1. Training needs to be annual. Employees should be very familiar with evacuation routes, emergency protocols, weather ‘safe-zones’ in the building, and chain of command during an emergency.
  2. Communication lines should be clear in a crisis. Have a system in place for communication. Make sure there are cellphones, land-lines, or radios available for communication between workers.
  3. Identify other hazards. Everyone needs to be aware of any toxic, flammable, or otherwise dangerous materials that could be damaged, or released during a natural disaster. Any such materials could cause explosions or contaminations that can be even more dangerous. This is especially applicable to manufacturing plants, labs, factories, or other jobsites where chemicals are common.
  4. Practice makes perfect. Surprise employees with drills to test their aptitude during a surprise ‘disaster’. Make sure everyone knows where in the building to take shelter, and where the safest areas are.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration advises businesses to form Emergency Response Teams. These teams would deal with first aid issues, toxic spills, shutdown of critical plant functions, and other important elements in an emergency. These teams should be adequately trained, and physically fit enough to perform if needed.

There are programs in place that employers can use to help prepare their workplace for a disaster. The Incident Command System (ICS) is one such program. The ICS was instated during the 1970s in response to severe wildfires in California. The ICS provides employers with resources to create and prepare effective action plans. In addition, the ICS offers training resources for disasters and emergencies.

The threats posed by natural disasters will never be eliminated, but their effects can be mitigated. If your workplace does not have an action plan in place, or does not prioritize training for emergencies, then you need to speak up. Every employee deserves the peace of mind that plans are in place, and the training is instilled to deal with a disaster.

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