Back to Basics, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Training

Back to Basics: Are You Prepared for Hurricane Season?

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine how to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season.

Is your workplace ready for up to 25 named storms this year, including seven major hurricanes (category 3, 4, or 5) with winds of 111 miles per hour (mph) or higher?

Forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center recently reported that warmer-than-average ocean temperatures and a shift from an El Niño to a La Niña climate pattern could result in an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season this year.

The 2024 Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. Government forecasters predict an 85% chance of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, a 10% chance of a near-normal season, and a 5% chance of a below-normal season.

Forecasters have 70% confidence in the following ranges:

  • 17 to 25 total named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher),
  • eight to 13 hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), and
  • four to seven major hurricanes.

Tropical cyclones are named using one of six rotating alphabetic lists. Names on each list alternate between female and male names, skipping names that begin with Q, U, X, Y, and Z. The World Meteorological Office retires names of particularly damaging or deadly storms. Retired names include Harvey, Katrina, and Sandy. The list of 21 names for 2024 begins with Alberto and ends with William.

Factors converging to produce above-normal storm activity include near-record warm ocean temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, the development of La Niña conditions in the Pacific, reduced Atlantic trade winds, and less wind shear.

Weather service scientists foresee a quick transition from El Niñoto La Niña conditions conducive to Atlantic hurricane activity. They also foresee the potential for an above-normal west African monsoon, producing African easterly waves that could seed strong and longer-lived Atlantic storms. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), light trade winds allow hurricanes to grow in strength without disrupting wind shear, which also minimizes ocean cooling.Warming oceans, both globally and in the Atlantic basin, along with melting ice on land, have led to sea-level rise, which could increase storm surge risks this year.

The National Weather Service, which, along with its Climate Prediction Center, is an office within NOAA, is transitioning to a neighborhood-level flood inundation mapping tool for emergency and water managers.

Preparing for the devastation of hurricanes

While hurricanes can devastate coastal businesses and communities, they can also move inland as lower-category hurricanes or tropical storms.

Do you have emergency action and evacuation plans, as well as procedures for recovering from storm damage?

An “it can’t happen here” attitude could leave you unprepared for a major storm system. Assess your company’s vulnerabilities in the event of area or flash flooding and hurricanes, and consult with local government officials, fire departments, and your insurance provider before a hurricane or another storm approaches. Also, familiarize yourself with your community’s emergency plans, designated shelters, and any warning alarms, sirens, or other signals used in your area.

Additionally, monitor weather alerts and warnings, and familiarize yourself now with the weather service’s terms used for hurricanes. Hurricane/tropical storm “watches” mean a hurricane or tropical storm is possible in your area, and hurricane/tropical storm “warnings” mean a hurricane or tropical storm is expected to reach your area, usually within 24 hours. You must make decisions now about handling customer or personnel casualties; damage to your facility’s equipment, infrastructure, and inventory; work disruption; and the potential loss of vital documents or records.

Your evacuation plan should cover how you’d get workers to safety in the event of a flood or hurricane. Elements of your evacuation plan should include:

  • Conditions that activate the plan.
  • Supervisors’ emergency functions and the chain of command during an emergency. Your plan should include an updated list of the names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of employees who should be contacted for additional information and direction, as well as explanations of employee duties under the plan.
  • Evacuation procedures with designated exits and routes with procedures for evacuating disabled personnel.
  • Procedures for confirming the evacuation of personnel, customers, and visitors.
  • Procedures for any employees who must remain on-site to perform critical plant operations.
  • Equipment for company personnel to secure the workplace.

Risks at chemical facilities

Both hurricanes and tropical storms can have devastating effects on chemical production and storage facilities, as well as refineries, in coastal regions like the Gulf Coast. Storms and high winds can damage or destroy structures or sections of power grids, leading to narrow or widespread power outages.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), which investigates explosions, fires, and toxic releases at chemical plants and refineries, recently urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to address hurricanes and other high-wind weather events in its Transmission System Planning Performance Requirements for the nation’s bulk-power system.

Power failures can result in the release of hazardous chemicals from a facility, putting workers and the surrounding community at serious risk, according to the CSB. The CSB investigated accidental chemical releases in Louisiana and Texas after hurricanes made landfall.

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall in 2017, bringing unprecedented amounts of rainfall to southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana that caused significant flooding. The loss of both main and backup power at Arkema, Inc.’s Crosby, Texas, chemical facility disabled the facility’s refrigeration system.

As temperatures rose at the facility, peroxides began to spontaneously combust. Three fires burned over the next few days, resulting in the combustion of 35,000 pounds of organic peroxide.

The CSB also investigated a 2020 chemical fire and toxic gas release at a Westlake, Louisiana, chemical facility. Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall in late August. Strong winds damaged buildings at the facility, tearing off roofs. Rainwater from the storm came into contact with trichloroisocyanuric acid (TCCA) on-site at the Bio-Lab’s Lake Charles facility, starting a chemical reaction and subsequent decomposition.

A fire started, and a large plume of hazardous gases, including toxic chlorine, escaped the facility. A portion of Interstate 10 was closed for over 28 hours, and local officials issued a shelter-in-place order for the surrounding community due to the release of hazardous gases.

In its final report on the incident, the CSB recommended that Bio-Lab construct new buildings and maintain existing structures at its facilities to withstand hurricane winds and flooding.

Rescue, recovery, and cleanup

Your security staff may need to perform some search-and-rescue tasks before emergency responders arrive after a storm hits. Most recovery and cleanup activities are contracted out following a flood or hurricane. However, at smaller companies, the facilities staff may perform some cleanup tasks. Do you have health and safety plans and equipment for those with recovery or cleanup duties?

Hazards for rescue and recovery workers may include exposure to asbestos or crystalline silica in damaged buildings; blood or other bodily fluids; sharp objects or jagged materials; slip, trip, and fall hazards; or even a potential for the collapse of unstable structures. Recovery and cleanup workers will likely need eye, hand, foot, hearing, fall, and respiratory protection to address such hazards.

If cement dust or crystalline silica is present, workers may need full-face respirators with P-100 organic vapor/acid gas combination cartridges.

Gasoline-powered generators pose carbon monoxide exposure hazards. Never run a portable generator inside a building, and shut down generators before refueling.

Equipment and vehicles pose struck-by hazards. Implement work zone safety procedures, and ensure your crews use high-visibility clothing, proper traffic controls, lighting, flaggers, and constant worksite communication.

Moreover, assume all floodwaters are contaminated unless proven otherwise. Flooding can dislodge chemicals previously stored aboveground, disrupt water treatment and sewage disposal systems, and cause overflowing of toxic waste sites. Floodwaters can be contaminated with fecal matter, and they often contain infectious organisms, such as intestinal bacteria, E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and the hepatitis A virus, as well as typhoid, paratyphoid, and tetanus germs.

Additionally, ensure workers are up to date on their tetanus boosters (within the past 10 years), and use waterproof boots, latex or rubber gloves, and other protective clothing. If possible, workers should wear a combination of two gloves for hand protection—an inner cut-resistant glove (nitrile or a similar washable material) and an outer nitrile or latex disposable glove—preferably gloves with a thickness of between 4 to 8 millimeters.

Proper hygiene and sanitation, including hand-washing, should supplement personal protective equipment (PPE) use to minimize the spread of contaminants and disease. If hand-washing isn’t practical, workers should be provided with hand sanitizer.

Alcohol-based hand-sanitizing procedures include:

  • The use of solutions of 70% rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol (about 3 quarts rubbing alcohol to 1 quart water);
  • Sprayers to cover all skin surfaces well, including wrists, palms, backs of hands, fingers, and under fingernails; and
  • Instruction for workers to rub gently and allow hands to air dry.

Ensure workers have and use all necessary PPE, including N95 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved disposable respirators for workers handling mold-contaminated materials.

Downed trees and power lines could pose electrocution hazards. Assume all power lines are live or energized, and establish a danger zone of at least 10 feet around a downed line. Only allow properly trained and equipped workers to repair electrical wires.

Follow standard procedures for confined-space entry, excavation and trenching, fall arrest systems, and ladder or scaffold use.

You may need to use mechanical equipment to move heavy trees or limbs. Ensure workers clearing downed trees or debris use work gloves, a hard hat, work boots, hearing protection, and eye/face protection and that any workers operating chain saws wear protective chaps.

Water-damaged building materials may be contaminated with fungi or mold. Precautions include:

  • Discarding articles visibly contaminated with mold. Workers should consider discarding all water-damaged materials.
  • Using respiratory protection from dust, which may contain fungal spores generated by moldy building materials, crops, and other materials.
  • Removing building materials and furnishings that are wet and may become contaminated with mold, placing them in sealed, impermeable bags or closed containers.
  • Covering large items with heavy mold growth with polyethylene sheeting and sealing wrapped items with duct tape before being removed from the area to be disposed of as construction waste.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting nonporous surfaces with detergents, chlorine-generating slimicides, or other biocides and ensuring cleaning products have been thoroughly removed before turning on air-handling units.

Plan and prepare

Make evacuation plans now, and prepare for evacuation, recovery, and cleanup before a hurricane arrives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.