In the Aftermath of the Storm: Tornadoes, storms and restoration safety

Illustration of a tornado ripping through houses
Shutterstock / Teravector
Published On
Mar 15, 2021

Storms wreak havoc and create dangerous conditions even after the weather itself has subsided. Tornadoes are particularly violent. They kill about 60 people per year and account for many more injuries, most of which occur during rescue attempts, cleanup and other post-tornado activities. Worker safety depends on an effective emergency response, recognition of post-tornado hazards and proper safety precautions during restoration and cleanup.

There will most likely be little warning before a tornado hits. A tornado watch usually encompasses large areas. Tornado warnings are not issued until there is a sighting, which typically provides only about 13 minutes notice before it hits.

An emergency plan must provide for access to weather notifications, effective employee alert procedures that are easily distinguishable from the signal used for an evacuation and options to shelter in place. When a warning is issued, immediately shut down, alert employees and move to the location identified in the plan. An interior room, basement or storm cellar is recommended. Avoid areas under bridges or overpasses. If a safe room is not available, go to a low, flat location. Make note of all sheltered in place for emergency contact purposes; remain there and listen to the radio for the all clear before exiting the site.

Bring essential disaster supplies such as bottled water, a battery-operated radio, first-aid supplies and flashlights to the site. Include hand sanitizer and ensure everyone has a mask for COVID-19 protection.

Cleanup

After the tornado, there will be a lot of work to do, from power restoration and cleanup to residential electric service repair.

According to Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA regional administrator, in an October 2020 news release, “Workers involved in storm cleanup can face a wide range of safety and health hazards. Implementing safe work practices, using appropriate personal protective equipment and ensuring workers are properly trained can help minimize the risk of injuries and fatalities during storm cleanup operations.”

Coordination with the local utility is essential for power restoration. Power outage hazards add to those normally encountered and complicate work further by having varied crews working on the system, some of whom may not be local.

Hazards include downed trees and power lines, flooding, damaged roads, treacherous driving conditions, broken glass and other debris. Also, damaged transformers, power lines and other energized equipment are more likely to malfunction and cause potential electrocution, fires or explosions.

Contractors and utilities with mutual assistance agreements must complete an on-boarding with the host utility to ensure everyone is aware of the procedures for information transfer of known hazards and existing conditions, characteristics, design and operation of the host’s installation. Critical information includes nominal line and equipment voltages; minimum approach distances; presence of hazardous induced voltages, protective grounds and equipment grounding conductors; and location and condition of circuits and equipment, including poles.

Job briefings to address known and potential hazards should be conducted at least daily. Where tasks change or complex work is encountered, multiple briefings are needed. When host information about conditions isn’t what is expected—not unusual after a storm—notify the utility, re-evaluate the task and perform work in a manner that protects workers from hazards.

Wiremen performing general cleanup and electrical repair need to consider associated hazards, such as slips and falls due to slippery walkways, punctures from protruding nails, falls from heights, electric shock and arc flash. Workers need to stay alert for possible structural, electrical or gas-leak hazards and report them to the proper local authorities or utility. Precautions need to be taken to protect the worker, including wearing appropriate arc-rated clothing and PPE.

Before performing electrical work, conduct a shock and risk assessment. Evaluating equipment is critical. The impact of the storm will most likely preclude it from being considered normal, according to NFPA 70E.

Finally, consider fatigue. After a large, damaging storm, crews often work around the clock to get everything repaired. It is vital not to overwork your employees, because tired workers are more likely to make mistakes. They should have a minimum of 8 hours off duty during each 24-hour period. However, workers should never sleep in a work vehicle or on the job.

About the Author

tom o’connor

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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