The Perfect Storm: Weather-related disasters yield opportunities, insights into safety

Shutterstock / ProStockStudio
Shutterstock / ProStockStudio
Published On
Jul 15, 2021

2020 set records for multibillion-dollar, weather-related disasters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual tally of hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, heat waves, droughts and wildfires since 1980 shows these events continuing to grow ominously in frequency and severity.

In 1981, a Florida fruit crop freeze and a few storms and tornadoes caused $2.9 billion in losses. By contrast, 2020 wielded unprecedented wildfires in the West, six hurricanes in the South, multiple tropical storms and tornadoes, an ice storm with softball-sized hail and a derecho that flattened crops, homes and businesses across the Midwest. These disasters affected multiple states and regions, with losses totaling $96 billion and considerable loss of life.

This year promises more of the same, having started with record snows, below-average temperatures and ice storms that knocked out power across huge portions of Texas.

Operating in disaster zones presents opportunities for work, but also unanticipated risks for the electrical industry, according to Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), Rosslyn, Va. Many of the risks have less to do with climate and more to do with human factors.

“We’re just not prepared for disasters of this scale,” he said. “From what we’re seeing in the electrical trades, most of the time, it’s complacency and less-experienced people coming into the picture that are the causes of injuries. It’s not so much about what we aren’t already equipped to handle.”

By “less-experienced people,” Brenner meant homeowners who set up power generators without proper transfer switches, which could result in a lineworker getting injured or killed. He was also referring to businesses hoping to reduce recovery costs by attempting to reuse floodwater-damaged electrical equipment.

In addition to reinforcing best safety practices for electricians and lineworkers responding to disasters, ESFI devotes a considerable portion of its website to educating the public on what they can do to reduce dangers for themselves and those working to restore power. This includes positioning power sources and sensitive electrical equipment above flood levels, taking proper precautions when using generators and evaluating electrical equipment affected by water.

Brenner mentioned dangers posed by fatigued electricians and lineworkers who forget to wear PPE, show a lack of attention while operating heavy equipment or drive too fast.

“The last thing on the mind of a lineman who’s heading into a disaster zone, where people are desperate for heat and electricity, may be staying within the speed limit,” Brenner said.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Surprisingly, it wasn’t lightning, floods or wildfires that caused the majority of claims for the electrical industry in recent years. Vehicle crashes accounted for nearly 60% of all claims reported by electrical contractors to Federated Insurance, Owatonna, Minn., in the past four years—making auto accidents the most frequent type of claim in the industry, said Nathan Oland, senior national account executive for Federated Insurance’s Association Risk Management Services.

The pandemic seemingly exacerbated this scenario. Less traffic on the roads emboldened more people to drive faster. The rate of traffic-related deaths rose by 18% in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Oland and other Federated Insurance executives agree that, by far, the biggest challenge to curbing driving accidents is getting people who are risk-takers by nature to absorb important safety messages and implement practices that involve self-discipline, such as not speeding or texting while driving.

Federated conducted a webinar offering key strategies for businesses to help curb driving accidents. One approach was to invite employees to share personal stories about close calls involving traffic accidents.

“These events hit us on a visceral level,” said Bill Walters, special accounts risk consultant for Federated Insurance. “To change behavior, it’s important to ask employees to give their input. You need to go beyond ‘operator error.’”

Electrical restoration following a storm can be fraught with hazards. | Atkins Electric
Electrical restoration following a storm can be fraught with hazards.
Atkins Electric

Walters also offered assurances that phone studies indicate productivity did not fall with restriction of mobile phone use while driving. Calls can be made before taking to the road and during breaks away from driving.

“It can take a couple of weeks to change behavior, but it’s worth it,” he said.

Setting up ways for employees to self-monitor and report progress also builds a culture of safe driving. Frequently scheduled safety reminder messages help more than one-time efforts.

Federated wisely left the specifics for carrying out driver safety efforts to individual businesses, which falls in line with its philosophy that different industries have different needs and operate with different cultures.

April Madding, senior vice president of union operations for Atkins Electric Co. Inc., El Dorado, Ark., understands the mentality of an industry where working comes with considerable risk.

“In addition to new construction and maintenance work, we travel for widespread storm restoration,” she said. “Staying prepared and ready to support utility relief efforts following a natural disaster is critical within our industry.”

Madding belongs to the third generation operating the family business, which specializes in high-voltage work.

“My grandfather started with just himself, a bucket truck and an ice storm,” she said. “I grew up with this business, so my background is about accepting challenges. Last year, from August through December and from locations throughout the deep South to the Northeast, our storm restoration efforts were continuous.”

Atkins Electric’s success rides heavily on the competence of lineworkers trained by the Southeastern Line Constructors Apprenticeship and Training program, she said. Atkins Electric draws heavily on IBEW locals throughout the country for a labor force that can balloon well past 100.

Mother and daughter Pat Atkins, left, and April Madding, right, own and operate Atkins Electric in El Dorado, Ark. The contractor is noting an increase in storm restoration work. | Greg Owens Photography
Mother and daughter Pat Atkins, left, and April Madding, right, own and operate Atkins Electric in El Dorado, Ark. The contractor is noting an increase in storm restoration work.
Greg Owens Photography

Atkins Electric also employs business directors, financial forecasters, estimators and managers in Pennsylvania, Texas and Oklahoma. In recent years, the company has negotiated contracts with several large utility companies, including Entergy Corp. in New Orleans; Con Edison in New York; Southern Co. in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama; and Eversource in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It performs maintenance work for a variety of commercial clients, including oil refineries, manufacturing plants and major wood pulp and paper companies.

“We’re expanding throughout North America,” Madding said, “but historically our efforts were concentrated in the South, Midwest and Northeast.”

Atkins Electric operates with an impeccable safety record, Madding said. As of April 2021, the company had only one minor OSHA-related incident in more than 14 years.

Atkins Electric also employs industry best practices and follows OSHA regulations and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Madding said. She is sensitive to the fact that lineworkers pulling 16-hour days, seven days a week, require adequate nutrition and a full night’s sleep.

The company, Madding said, “goes the extra mile” to ensure crews are well fed, hydrated, rested and supplied with the right equipment. That effort manifests as delivered meals, meal vouchers, meals prepared at churches in disaster zones, and hotel accommodations, which supplement the supportive encampments with grills and portable kitchens often set up by utility companies.

Beyond these supportive measures, operating confidently and staying in business entails being adequately insured and working with an insurance company familiar with Atkins Electric’s needs, Madding said. Many insurance companies analyze claims, conduct inspections, and suggest new ways to reduce risks.

“Our trade is extremely important, but also extremely hazardous,” she said. “Protection of the business, its employees and clients is vital to the success of the company.”

“It’s important to insure your business with a company that understands your industry and the unique hazards that [ECs] face,” Oland said. “A carrier that has industry-specific coverages and service offerings is important too. Every business is unique and deserves customized coverage.”

Nearly a quarter of all worker’s compensation claims fielded by Federated from electrical contractors in recent years have involved a laceration, cut, scrape or puncture. Injuries to upper extremities, such as hands and arms, account for 40% of those claims.

“We have also seen frequent and costly claims from back and knee strains, slips, trips and falls and electrical shocks,” Oland said.

Business owners and employees share the responsibility for working safely, both when performing disaster relief and doing their daily jobs.


About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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