Preparing For Weather Emergencies In The Age Of COVID-19

| OSHA, USF Safety Florida

Written by William Tomlin, USF SafetyFlorida Health Supervisor

It is hurricane season again which requires employers to review, update, or create an emergency action plan for weather-related emergencies. With the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic, your plans must address shelters, or sheltering in place, and the need to protect you, your loved ones, and your employees from exposure to the virus. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have standards specifically addressing natural disasters and weather emergencies, OSHA understands that they occur and wants all employers to prepare for these emergencies. OSHA requires employers to consider natural disasters and weather emergencies when the employer writes an Emergency Action Plan. Also, look to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and protocols for testing and quarantining infected individuals. Now would be the opportune time to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can. COVID-19 vaccines help protect you from getting sick or severely ill, and may also help to protect the people around you.

While your plan should identify reasonably anticipated workplace emergencies such as fires, chemical spills and work-related injuries, this article will focus on weather emergencies. It may be prudent for planning purposes to view the CDC county map to determine your community’s exposure level.

Hurricanes bring a combination of high winds and floodwaters. Tornadoes and thundershowers often follow hurricanes and create dangers even after the hurricane has passed. Prepare for high winds just as you would prepare for a tornado. Equally as critical, is flash flooding from heavy rains that should be  considered during emergency planning.

This part of the plan should have a checklist that addresses:

  • Securing outside objects, have window shutters ready, reinforce double doors and garage doors, remove or trim nearby trees. 
  • Prepare for floodwaters by installing a water-protective coating, securing outside furniture, securing oil and chemical tanks.
  • Pre-staging sandbags to use to reinforce water entry points in your building.
  • Have a method to protect any electrical or Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) equipment.
  • Installing sewer backflow valves or sump pumps to prevent the flooding of basement or floor pits.

Your facility may have critical plant operations that must be monitored or slowly shut down and cannot be left unattended when an evacuation is necessary. In this case, OSHA requires that the Emergency Action Plan (EAP) define the procedures that must be followed by employees who are designated to remain to operate these critical plant functions. These employees will evacuate when exposed to an immediate danger such as a fire.

Remember, not all-weather emergencies will require evacuation of the building. In fact, some weather emergencies will require sheltering in place, so employees need to know where designated shelter areas are located. If sheltering in place or evacuation is not possible, proceed to the predetermined assembly area at the facility. Be sure to follow physical distancing recommendations (staying at least 6 feet from others) and other CDC recommendations to protect yourself and others during sheltering period.

The CDC recommends that if indoors, bring in fresh air by opening accessible windows and doors. This will be next to impossible during a weather event so masking or distancing will be the only alternative.
If you are at increased risk of getting sick from COVID-19, avoid crowded places and indoor spaces that do not have fresh air from the outdoors.

Remember to do a headcount to ensure everyone has assembled in the secure area. Close all interior doors and assign one person to listen to the radio for community instructions. If the facility has a disaster supply kit, distribute the contents as required for employee safety. Civil authorities may advise facilities to turn off utilities such as electricity, natural gas, and water.

The EAP should include employees training on best practices for their personal safety. This may include a Hurricane Watch (36 hours before landfall) and a Warning (24 hours before landfall)

When a hurricane watch is issued, employees should bring in outside items that are not secured, close shutters or board up windows and be prepared to move furniture and other valuables to a higher floor in case of floodwaters.  As soon as possible, fill vehicle gas tanks and get a disaster supply kit ready.

When a hurricane warning is issued, employees should evacuate if advised. If not evacuating, they should go to an interior room. If in your personal residence, close all interior doors in your home. As a safety precaution, employees should remember to call family contacts and inform them of their plans.

If employees are advised to evacuate their homes, advise them to lock up and secure the premises. They should inform family contacts and utilize preplanned evacuation routes out of their neighborhood or town. They should also listen to the radio for reports of blocked roads.

Remember that the calm of the hurricane’s “eye” can be deceptive. It may seem that the storm is over and it is safe to leave a shelter area. However, the winds will soon return. Therefore, keep employees in the shelter until advised by civil authorities that the hurricane has completely passed.

Prevention measures set the foundation for effective emergency response. The USF SafetyFlorida Consultation Program is committed to providing the tools and resources vital to protecting your workforce. Our team of experts hold over 150 years of combined occupational health and safety leadership experience throughout various industries. Visit www.tfaforms.com/4696809 to request a no-cost confidential consultation today.

William Tomlin
Health Supervisor
USF SafetyFlorida Consultation Program