Emergency Preparedness and Response, Personnel Safety

Get Ready for Peak Hurricane Season

Are you prepared for the peak of hurricane season?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) still expects an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season despite a quiet season so far. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued an updated outlook August 4, and NOAA still expects 14 to 20 named tropical storms, 6 to 10 hurricanes, and 3 to 5 major hurricanes.

So far, there have been three named storms (Alex, Bonnie, and Colin) and no hurricanes in the Atlantic basin. Conditions setting the stage for an active hurricane season include a continuing La Niña climate pattern, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds, an active West African monsoon, and likely above-normal Atlantic sea-surface temperatures.

According to NOAA’s forecasters, the likelihood of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season decreased to 60%, lowered from its outlook issued in May, which predicted a 65% chance of an above-normal season. The likelihood of near-normal activity rose to 30%, and the chances for a below-normal season remained at 10%. 

You can find updates on the latest tropical storm and hurricane activity from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.

Summer hazards

Outdoor work in agriculture and construction increases during the summer months. Worker health and safety exposures during summer include excessive heat and wildfire smoke, as well as:

  • Electrical hazards that include electric shock, electrocution, electrical fires, and explosions;
  • Excavation and trenching hazards like cave-ins or trench collapses;
  • Falls from height; and
  • Grain engulfment in bins and silos, animal-acquired infections, exposures to pesticides and other chemicals, and musculoskeletal injuries from repetitive-motion tasks in both crop and animal production.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently announced plans for 1,000 excavation inspections to address a rise this year in trenching and excavation fatalities. OSHA also recently issued several six-figure penalties for fall protection violations.

However, the hazards posed by hurricanes can be fast-moving and widespread, and the effects of hurricanes are not limited to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Southeastern and Gulf Coast states. While hurricanes can be devastating to coastal businesses and communities, they also can move inland, so areas in the U.S. interior are not immune to the effects of hurricanes and tropical storms.

Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, and the Eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 to November 30. The peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is from mid-August to late October.

You should familiarize yourself with the cautionary language used by government officials for hurricanes and tropical storms. Hurricane or tropical storm “watches” mean a hurricane or tropical storm is possible in your area, and hurricane or tropical storm “warnings” mean a hurricane or tropical storm is expected to reach your area, usually within 24 hours.

Tropical cyclones are not the only weather-related threat. “100-year floods” are happening more frequently. Are you prepared for areal or flash flooding? Do you have emergency action and evacuation plans in place?

Do you have a plan for when a storm hits? Are you and your employees trained and ready for an evacuation?

Essential elements of an evacuation plan include:

  • Conditions that would activate your evacuation plan.
  • A chain of command and assigned emergency functions, including who will perform them. You need to compile and regularly update your list of names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of employees who can be contacted for additional information or explanations of employee duties under the plan.
  • Procedures for employees who must remain at your facility to maintain critical operations.
  • Evacuation procedures with designated exits and routes, as well as procedures for evacuating employees with disabilities.
  • Procedures for accounting for evacuated customers, employees, and visitors.
  • Equipment for securing your facility.

Your emergency action plan may include preparations and procedures for “sheltering in place” if evacuation is impossible or impractical. You would need to stockpile emergency supplies for workers who must shelter in place. Sheltering in place preparation means having enough food, water, and other supplies for each worker to last at least 72 hours.

The American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency have recommended supply lists. A basic disaster kit should include:

  • One gallon of water per person per day for at least 3 days for drinking and sanitation;
  • A 3-day supply of nonperishable food and a manual can opener for canned food;
  • A battery-powered or hand-crank radio, such as a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert, as well as a mobile phone, with chargers and a backup battery;
  • Dust masks to filter contaminated air;
  • A first-aid kit;
  • A flashlight and extra batteries; and
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags, and plastic ties for personal sanitation.

Consult with local government officials, your fire department, and your insurance provider before you face a storm. You also need to familiarize yourself with your local community’s emergency plans and designated shelters and any warning alarms, sirens, or other signals used in your area.

Make decisions now about how you would handle:

  • Customer or personnel casualties and injuries;
  • Damage to your equipment and inventory;
  • Disruption of work;
  • Damage to your facility’s structures or systems; and
  • Possible loss of vital documents or records.

Have you established procedures for recovering from storm damage?

Search and rescue, recovery and cleanup

Your facility’s security staff may need to perform search-and-rescue tasks before emergency responders arrive. Search and rescue also may involve providing emergency medical services requiring first-aid training.

Those involved in search and rescue may be exposed to asbestos or crystalline silica in damaged buildings; blood or other bodily fluids that pose infection risks; sharp objects or jagged materials; and slip, trip, and fall hazards. Those performing search-and-rescue duties may even face hazards from collapsing structures weakened by wind, flooding, or storm surges.

Employees performing search and rescue also will need personal protective equipment (PPE). Eye, hand, foot, hearing, fall, and respiratory protection are all appropriate measures. If cement dust or crystalline silica is present, full-face respirators are appropriate protection from airborne contaminants that can cause eye irritation.

Most recovery and cleanup activities are contracted out in the immediate aftermath of a flood or hurricane. However, at smaller companies, the facilities staff may be assigned cleanup tasks.

Recovery and cleanup after a flood or hurricane can present hazards that include:

  • Carbon monoxide exposure from gasoline-powered generators;
  • Confined spaces;
  • Contaminated floodwaters; and
  • Downed or damaged trees and power lines, equipment, and vehicles.

Workers may also be at risk of heat stress from wearing protective clothing and working in hot, humid conditions. Heavy equipment like bucket trucks, cranes, and skid-steer loaders can pose struck-by hazards.

You need to take steps to protect workers engaged in post-hurricane recovery and cleanup, such as:

  • Assuming floodwater is contaminated unless proven otherwise and ensuring workers are up to date on their tetanus boosters (within the past 10 years) and using waterproof boots, latex or rubber gloves, and other protective clothing;
  • Ensuring that workers have and use all necessary PPE, especially National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respirators for workers handling mold-contaminated materials;
  • Assuming all power lines are live or energized, establishing a danger zone of at least 10 feet around downed lines, and only allowing properly trained and equipped workers to repair electrical wires;
  • Following standard procedures for confined-space entry, excavation and trenching, fall protection, and ladder or scaffold use;
  • Strictly following all work zone safety procedures to protect workers from vehicles—the use of high-visibility clothing; proper traffic controls; and lighting, flaggers, and worksite communications;
  • Never running a generator inside a building and shutting down the generator before refueling; and
  • Using mechanical equipment to move heavy trees or limbs and ensuring that workers clearing downed trees use work gloves, a hard hat, work boots, hearing protection, and eye/face protection and that any workers operating chain saws wear protective chaps.

Flooding can dislodge chemicals previously stored aboveground, disrupt water treatment and sewage disposal systems, and cause toxic waste to overflow. Floodwaters also can be contaminated with fecal matter. Floodwater often contains infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, and shigella; the hepatitis A virus; and typhoid, paratyphoid, and tetanus germs.

Workers need hand protection in potentially contaminated floodwaters and should wear a combination of two gloves if possible: an inner cut-resistant glove and an outer disposable latex or nitrile glove, preferably with a thickness of between 4 to 8 millimeters.

In addition to the use of PPE, proper hygiene and sanitation are essential to minimize the spread of contaminants and disease. Hand-washing is a critical component of good hygiene. If hand-washing with soap and water is not practical, workers should be given hand sanitizer.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers should have a solution of 70 percent rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol. When using hand sanitizer, all skin surfaces should be well covered, including wrists, palms, backs of hands, fingers, and under fingernails. Instruct workers to rub gently and allow hands to air dry.

Fungal growth may also be present in post-hurricane flood conditions. Cleanup workers may be exposed to airborne fungi and their spores from handling decaying vegetable matter, moldy building materials, rotting waste material, or other contaminated debris.

To protect your employees from fungi and mold exposure, ensure that:

  • Articles visibly contaminated with mold are discarded. Workers should even consider dumping water-damaged materials—”when in doubt, throw it out.”
  • Building materials and furnishings that are wet and may become contaminated with mold are placed in sealed, impermeable bags or closed containers.
  • Large items with heavy mold growth are covered with polyethylene sheeting and sealed with duct tape before being removed from the area to be disposed of as construction waste.
  • Nonporous surfaces are cleaned and disinfected with detergents, chlorine-generating slimicides, or other biocides, ensuring that cleaners have been thoroughly removed before turning on air-handling units.

Workers handling moldy or damp building materials, compost, grain, or hay should use NIOSH-approved N95 disposable respirators when working.

Cleanup and recovery workers also are likely to see stray or wild animals immediately after flooding, and snakes also may have been displaced during a hurricane. Your employees must understand that a snake’s striking distance is half its total length. If bitten, they should note the color and shape of the snake’s head and seek immediate treatment.

You should prepare for a hurricane before the National Weather Service issues a watch or warning for your area.