Office Safety Tips Injury prevention

Is your workplace prepared for a tornado?

Experts offer tips on keeping employees safe

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Photos: FEMA/Yuisa Rios

Spring is considered tornado season for much of the United States, but tornadoes can occur any time of the year.

About 1,200 strike in the United States each year, and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tornadoes have resulted in an annual average of 70 fatalities from 1987 to 2016 (the most recent data available). Twisters also have been recorded in all 50 states.

How can employers ensure their workers are prepared?

Have a plan

As with any emergency, having a thorough plan in place can help mitigate injuries, fatalities and damage to property in the event of a tornado.

OSHA requires nearly all employers with at least 11 employees to have a written, comprehensive emergency action plan. Employers with 10 or fewer employees are permitted to communicate their plans orally, the agency states.

Charlotte Hyams Porter is acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division. Hyams Porter said employers should:

  • Pay attention to local weather via media reports, notifications from weather apps or emergency apps such as the FEMA app, and/or a NOAA weather radio.
  • Keep employees informed about weather conditions. Methods include text messages, emails or announcements over an intercom or loudspeaker. “A community’s outdoor warning sirens should never be your primary warning method,” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Norman (OK) Forecast Office. “Don’t rely on just one source for warnings.”
  • Develop a backup communication system in case the primary one fails, and test both systems regularly.
  • Make sure employees know where to seek shelter and assemble after a tornado passes. “That way, there can be people to take a head count and make sure everyone is accounted for,” Hyams Porter said.
  • Conduct regularly scheduled tornado drills. “It’s something that should be done on a routine basis. It’s not just a one-time-of-year type of drill,” Hyams Porter said.

Look and listen

The appearance of a funnel cloud in the sky is the most obvious sign of a tornado, but be on the lookout for other signs as well, according to Roger Edwards, a lead forecaster at NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center.

They include:

  • Dark and often greenish clouds or sky
  • Appearance of wall clouds (also known as pedestal clouds)
  • Persistent and strong rotation in the cloud base
  • Hail and/or heavy rain, followed by a fast and intense wind shift or “dead calm”
  • A roaring sound that doesn’t fade after a few seconds
  • Whirling dust and debris near the ground and under the clouds

Seek shelter

When a tornado warning is issued, do your employees know where to go? In general, workers should find an enclosed, windowless area on the lowest floor, Edwards said. That area should be as close to the center of the facility as possible and away from glass windows. He also recommends workers crouch down as low as possible, with their faces down and hands covering their heads.

“The goal of tornado safety is to put as many barriers between you and the outside as you can to minimize the chances of you being hit by flying or falling debris,” Smith said, adding that restrooms, closets or even walk-in coolers that meet the aforementioned criteria can provide shelter. “In many cases, you’re looking for the area that seems safest in relation to other parts of the building.”

To determine if their buildings can withstand a tornado, employers should consult a professional who is knowledgeable in wind-resistant design and can analyze each component of the building, said Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association at Texas Tech University. According to the Texas Tech website, the association uses criteria developed by university researchers to “ensure the highest quality storm shelters to protect people against tornadoes and hurricanes.”

If workers are outdoors or traveling, Smith suggests they monitor the weather and look for shelter options well in advance of approaching storms. If possible, postpone travel that might include severe weather along the route, he added.

If a tornado is nearby, quickly move to a sturdy building if one is available. If that’s not an option, lie down in an area lower than the elevation of the road and cover your head with your hands. Never stay in a vehicle during a tornado or try to outrun it, experts caution – tornadoes often move in unpredictable paths.

In addition, workers should know that bridges and overpasses are not good shelters. They can become wind tunnels for debris, Kiesling said. Traffic congestion is another issue, Smith pointed out – too many cars crowded under a bridge or overpass can block traffic, including emergency vehicles.

After the storm

Once the tornado passes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises the following:

  • Check workers for injuries. Don’t move anyone who is seriously injured unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Instead, seek medical assistance right away. Begin CPR (if trained) on anyone who has stopped breathing.
  • Check apps and other sources for additional emergency weather information.
  • Proceed with caution through damaged areas, and watch out for hazards. Wear proper personal protective equipment when handling debris.
  • Cooperate with emergency personnel.

Part of an organization’s emergency plan should include how an employer plans to communicate with its employees after a tornado, Hyams Porter said.

“The better prepared the businesses are, the better prepared the employees are, and the higher their chances of surviving,” she said.

Free resources

A number of resources are available for download on fema.gov to help employers create a tornado emergency plan, including FEMA’s Severe Wind Tornado Toolkit and Prepare Your Organization for a Tornado Playbook.

OSHA offers a Tornado Preparedness and Response section on its website.

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