Predicting the Unpredictable: PPE Planning for a Natural Disaster

Don't minimize the possibilities; you plan for the worst scenario so you can handle a less severe event.

IF you feel that there have been more "once in a lifetime" natural disasters in the past few years to last 10 lifetimes, you're not imagining things. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which publishes a World Disasters Report annually, calculates that from 1994 to 1998, reported disasters averaged 428 per year. From 1999 to 2003, this figure shot up by two-thirds to an average of 707 natural disasters each year. And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the 2006 North American hurricane season is expected to be "very active."

As we've seen in the past and were perhaps reminded all too painfully last year with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the impact of these natural disasters can devastate communities, making the return to normalcy a long-term prospect. One lesson, however, that has been gleaned from recent experiences is the better we can anticipate these disasters, the better prepared we will be to deal with the aftermath.

Safety and health professionals play a critical role in arming workers and contractors with the personal protective equipment needed to navigate the often-dangerous scenes that emerge following a natural disaster. The $100,000 question then becomes: How does one plan for an otherwise unimaginable, "once in a lifetime" event?

Before we can answer this question, it is helpful to discuss the six phases of a "typical" disaster event:

  • Hazard assessment. Long before any natural disaster occurs, safety and health professionals must assess the possible hazards from a worst-case disaster scenario. This is the most critical (and difficult) phase in determining an organization's PPE needs following a natural disaster, so I will devote the majority of this article to discussing some of the many possibilities that need to be considered at this stage. It is also critical at this stage to establish your recovery objectives and what will be the priority in cleanup, rebuild, and restart.
  • Rescue. The rescue phase occurs during and shortly after the actual event and is carried out by first responders: law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, National Guard, etc. These men and women are trained professionals skilled in rescuing injured or stranded people from a wide range of emergency situations. They rely on their own specialized PPE during the crisis.
  • Recovery includes the processes of cleanup, rebuilding, and restarting. And before any action can be taken, the hazards must be reassessed. Regardless of how thorough your pre-event hazard assessment is, you will need to do another assessment immediately following the disaster. One hopes the pre-event hazard assessment anticipated what you are now facing, but no pre-event assessment is going to be able to account for every scenario. So while you will want to use your earlier assessment as a guide, be realistic about the current state of affairs and be able to adjust quickly and accordingly. Keep in mind, the post disaster reassessment is not a single event, but, in fact, requires a series of recurring reassessments as you move through recovery.

Where PPE Fits In
PPE is critical during the cleanup phase of recovery. As workers begin to remove wreckage and stabilize structures from further damage, it is critical they have the necessary protection in an unstable environment. Asbestos, mold, lead paint, silica, fecal matter, decaying animals, and vegetation are just some of the hazards that can be faced during cleanup.

Even before the entire cleanup is complete, most organizations will want to begin rebuilding. PPE will continue to play a large role during this phase as workers continually move back and forth from secure areas to those still in the process of being cleaned up. Typical construction PPE may require augmentation against chemical, biological, or particle hazards from post-event contaminants.

While cleanup and rebuilding goes on, critical infrastructure must be restarted. As you deal with things such as turning the power back on, threats such as electrical arcing are very much present, meaning PPE needs will also be a key consideration during this stage.

Unfortunately, we don't have access to a crystal ball when we put together our hazard assessments. So a good start is to use past events to guide our planning, but be careful not to let the "typical" event define your disaster event. A good rule of thumb is to observe how things react in a more ordinary event--such as a rainstorm--and then scale upward to the worst imaginable scenario. In other words, if you typically see 1 to 2 inches of flooding from a heavy rainstorm, for the purposes of conducting a hazard assessment, you must consider what would happen if there were 6 inches of water or 6 feet of water. Or if you typically lose power in an earthquake for two hours, imagine what it would be like if power were lost for two days or two months.

Additionally, one of the keys to doing an effective hazard assessment is to envision the widest array of disaster scenarios possible. It's understandable that a safety professional in Northern California will be focused primarily on the potential impact of an earthquake, but it would be a mistake to completely dismiss the possibility of other natural disasters, however unlikely. For the same reason, someone in the Midwest should not solely concern himself with tornadoes, though they are the most common disaster that typically affects this part of the country. It may be a cliché, but when conducting a hazard assessment, you really must expect the unexpected. Don't minimize the possibilities; you plan for the worst scenario so you can handle a less severe event.

Once you have done your best to plan for the full range of disaster scenarios, you must next identify the potential hazards that may result in the aftermath of these events. After all, when trying to understand an organization's PPE needs for a natural disaster, safety and health professionals should focus on the hazards that are expected to be present after a disaster.

Additional Complications
Under normal circumstances we have physical containment of our hazards, but during a natural disaster you need to expect containers to fail. Roofs come off buildings. Bags burst. Tanks float away. And it's not just your facility. The impact of the event also can cause the contents of your "neighbor's" workplace to turn up on your doorstep. For that reason, you must be aware of your surroundings and understand the cleanup effort may require having to deal with chemicals or other hazards not even present in your facility. To further illustrate this point, during Hurricane Katrina, cleanup efforts were stalled by poisonous snakes and alligators that were washed away from their natural habitats into heavily populated environments and work sites. As I said, expect the unexpected.

In the context of assessing the threats posed by hazards, you also must understand that sometimes the presence of a hazardous material, in and of itself, does not pose a threat, but the activity by which you deal with it may be the source of the problem. For example, a puddle of chemical in the parking lot is an environmental problem; it becomes a health and safety problem when you start to clean it up.

Beyond the presence of hazardous materials, you also must be aware of the additional complications that are likely to arise. Wind damage, water damage, and roof instability are likely to jeopardize the safety of the remaining physical environment. And if that's not enough, you also must consider how to safely lead cleanup efforts in a situation where there may be no potable water, power, communications, food, shelter, and/or sanitation for days, if not weeks. And consider the situation "outside the fence": What hazards are presented by the lack of electricity, gas, and water; by damaged bridges, roads, and causeways; and by the lack of rail and barge transport?

Planning Your Response and Your PPE
Beyond being the most critical phase in PPE planning for a natural disaster, the hazard assessment is the most difficult. An endless number of possibilities need to be anticipated and planned for; in many cases, these scenarios involve events on a scale that have rarely, if ever, occurred. For this reason, safety and health professionals should not rely solely on themselves or their teams in planning for such events. There are simply too many variables and too many possibilities for one person or one group to anticipate. At this phase of the process, it's important to solicit input from throughout your organization, including the executive level, operations, finance (someone is going to have to finance cleanup efforts), and other areas critical to maintaining the business. Drills and exercises are useful in identifying the gaps in the plan.

Once the hazard assessment is complete, you can then begin to plan for your PPE needs. As you do so, ask yourself what specific PPE is required to address the hazards associated with cleanup, rebuilding, and restarting your facilities. Consider the five major PPE categories; respiratory, foot, hand, eye, and skin/body protection. Take care to research those products that you may not be familiar with; given the unpredictable nature of a disaster event, you might find the need to use PPE you've never worked with before.

After you have identified your PPE needs, you have the duty to inform the workers of the anticipated hazards, teach them how to properly use the PPE, and test their understanding of the hazards and PPE. In some cases it might be PPE they have worn before, but if you have properly planned for a worst-case scenario, there are likely to be a number of other PPE items they have not used previously. While full training is important before the event, anticipate that some level of refresher and remedial training will be needed as the recovery phase begins. You want to minimize the amount of time necessary to make sure your workers know how to properly use the PPE in the immediate aftermath and confusion of a natural disaster. Thus, effective and repetitive PPE training before the event saves time in the recovery stage.

One of the oft-forgotten steps in this part of the planning process is to communicate this same information to the contractors who are likely to be part of the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. If they have not gone through the proper training prior to an event, this is likely to slow down their ability to start work or might even halt work completely.

Another important consideration in planning for your PPE needs is supply. Beyond determining how much of a given product you will need, you must decide on a secure and accessible location in which to store the equipment. It is recommended that you consider off-site locations if you feel the overall integrity of your facilities may not be strong enough to withstand the effects of a natural disaster. And make sure your on-site storage matches your disaster plan; storing your pumps at 6 feet is no good when your worst-case scenario is a 9-foot flood.

Even the best pre-event hazard assessments will fail to anticipate all scenarios. In addition to caching the PPE you have identified, you must have a plan to acquire additional and different PPE as you consume you initial supplies and encounter other hazards. Select a supplier who has a disaster plan to meet your needs and have a plan for timely resupply of PPE. Remember, the roads may be impassable and rail service disrupted.

Quick, Safe Resumption is Possible
The types of scenarios offered in this article represent extreme examples of what could happen in a major natural disaster. While it's unlikely you will experience such an event yourself (I certainly hope you never have to), recent history has taught us that to completely discount the possibility is a foolishly shortsighted approach. Even if you never have to manage through the aftermath of such a disaster, planning for the worst case will undoubtedly prove helpful in more effectively dealing with smaller-scale events.

For safety and health professionals, a rigorous and thorough hazard assessment that accounts for a variety of possible disaster events and identifies the organization's expected PPE needs is the key to speeding the safe cleanup, rebuild, and restart of operations following a "once in a lifetime" event. And while no one will ever accurately predict all of the threats that may strike, understanding the process and assessing the possibilities before they occur is the best path for quickly, and safely, returning to business as usual. To paraphrase President Eisenhower when he commanded the Allied liberation of Europe: "The plan is nothing, the planning is everything."

This article appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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