Does your emergency action plan include what to do in the event of a hurricane? We are in the midst of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts is an above-normal hurricane season. As many as 10-16 named storms are possible, four of which could be just as powerful and destructive as last year’s Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
If your construction site is located in an area prone to hurricanes, it’s important to have procedures in place for securing the site and evacuating workers. Training workers on these procedures, including having periodic drills, can help ensure their safety, the safety of neighboring residents and help minimize damage on site.
What Is a Hurricane?
A hurricane is a tropical storm with a minimum constant wind speed of 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour). The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is the standard for rating hurricanes and consists of five separate categories.
Hurricanes reaching Category 3 or higher are considered “major” because of the potential for significant loss of life and damage. Category 1 and 2 hurricanes are still dangerous, as they are capable of damaging structures, toppling trees and causing power outages. Preventive measures should be taken for all hurricanes, regardless of their category.
Hurricanes caused more than $265 billion in damage in the U.S. last year. Depending on what phase a project is in, buildings under construction can be particularly vulnerable to a hurricane. That’s because materials required by state building codes to help protect structures from extreme wind may not have been installed yet. Consider windows, for example. During a hurricane, windows can be a key point of entry for damaging wind, rain and airborne debris. In Florida, which has some of the strictest building codes in the country, windows in new buildings must be impact-resistant or protected if they are located within one mile of the coast where wind speed is 110 mph or greater. All materials used on a building’s exterior must pass a ballistics test to ensure they won’t shatter when struck by flying debris.
It’s not just structures that are at risk when a hurricane strikes. Heavy construction equipment like tractors and earth movers that may not be able to be relocated can be damaged beyond repair. While the site is likely to be unmanned when a storm hits, tools and materials that are not secured or removed can become airborne, endangering people in neighboring homes and businesses.
What Should Employers Do?
Familiarity with hurricane warning terms and your city or town’s emergency plan is important. A hurricane watch means a storm is possible in a particular area and that it’s time to review your emergency action plan with employees and designate who will:
- Anchor or relocate equipment, dumpsters and portable bathrooms
- Move stored chemicals and other materials away from areas likely to flood
- Remove job site signage that can be torn loose
A hurricane warning means the storm is expected – usually within 36 hours – and that it’s time to:
- Prepare the site for the hurricane (see above) and:
- Back up critical computer information and store data backup offsite
- Use plastic tarps to cover office equipment like filing cabinets, computers and copiers that cannot be relocated
- Move project drawings to a protected location on or offsite
- Shut down gas lines as far back as feasible to prevent a gas release or fire
- Shut down all water lines not used for fire protection
- Consider having cash available for post-hurricane operations. If telephone and power are out, cash may be required to pay employees.
- Evacuate if directed by local officials.
- Make sure employees are aware that it’s actually drowning that’s responsible for most deaths during and immediately after hurricanes. Encourage employees to follow evacuation orders.
For insurance purposes, employers should also make a video or photographic record of the construction site to document conditions prior to the storm. They should also establish an offsite location to meet after the hurricane to discuss cleanup operations.
The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division can help LIUNA signatory contractors manage hazards during hurricane cleanup. The Fund has also developed a number of materials that provide more information on specific hazards workers may encounter after a hurricane. For more information, call the OSH Division at 202-628-5465.
The Fund also offers a variety of brochures and health alerts on stress management that can be beneficial to workers. These materials can be ordered through our online Publications Catalogue.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]