A house in Snow Hill, N.C. lay in ruins after a tornado April 16. (Photo: David Fine/FEMA)

After the Tornadoes

The safety training you do today has a very long lifespan.

April 2011 will live in infamy for the outbreak of tornadoes in the South. Hundreds dead, thousands injured, and endless acres of huge debris piles where company buildings, communities, and homes had stood a few hours before. No industry was spared, from the high-tech nuclear power plant's damage to the obliterated corner store.

Jagged spikes stuck out randomly like porcupines. Wires and cables lay everywhere, as did tangles of unrecognizable building materials and glass shards of all shapes and sizes, from huge, tattered sheets barely attached and waiting to fall to thick coatings of powdered glass. The building materials and safety glass covered everything and blew freely with every movement.

Power poles and century-old oaks were wrung off their moorings, fractured, with wooden pieces ranging from tinder-sized splinters to ton sections perched precariously, leaves fluttering in the breeze.

Here in North Carolina, hundreds of businesses and thousands of homes were utterly destroyed. The first hours of frantic rescue amid unstable mounds of hazards were punctuated with the celebration of found survivors. Slowly, these gave way to the somber but deliberate acts of body retrieval. Miles and miles of unrecognizable communities and every life touched by this disaster will never be the same.

Not exactly the time for head & face protection training, is it? When people/employees are numb with exposure, their actions must be habit. All safety pros know that you cannot wait until a crisis happens to provide training and awareness. Our work is done ahead of time, in the calm of the planning stage and long before storm clouds gather or another unforeseen, devastating event happens. That is one of the most important justifications for the safety training motto "train to second nature" for all aspects of your worker protection.

Here, where one of the month's first multi-tornado rampages took place, I noticed an amazing thing happening: Volunteers and workers alike were being gently "encouraged" by others to protect themselves based on previous safety training from work environments. Retired military personnel calmly directed efforts. Professional rescue teams joined willing (but clueless to danger) victims searching through the rubble, as though it was a scavenger hunt for victims. Construction workers used shovels and pry tools and helped with cranes and every kind of heavy equipment, or simply used their hands. The morning after, a church group handed out hard hats, gloves, and basic pennies-per-set safety glasses. When I asked, the group's leader, breathing heavily and obviously stressed, told me he had learned basic PPE safety from years of "boring d*mn tailgate" meetings in the construction trades but had never thought much about it till now.

"This ain't no game, man, we ain't frying fish -- you can really get hurt out here" was his steady chant. "You can't help nobody if you are the one hurt." "Be careful, work in teams." "Watch yourself, watch yourself." Other sage warnings and snippets of safety wisdom, he plucked from meetings attended long ago.

Valued workers and volunteers wielding chainsaws were correctly outfitted for the harsh, unpredictable environment with head protection, chip guards, and eye protection in place. Someone quickly stopped a volunteer near a church building who was using a leaf blower to move piles of powdered glass; it was blowing like fine dust sparkling in the air, and he hadn't realized the danger to other people's eyes.

I had cases of drinking water to hand out. I also cleaned out my stash of safety items from home and within minutes, handed out every personal set of safety glasses and goggles I could muster. I noticed at least two other safety professionals/local sales reps doing the same with what they had on hand: gloves, first aid supplies, high-visibility vests, and head protection of all types. Other groups came prepared with a box of PPE for each team member. All this happened in a small area of the destruction, because it was very difficult to navigate due to the high hazards all around us.

Getting Prepared
You hear a lot about the bad in people during a crisis. I think we saw the shining goodness that morning after, only a week before I wrote this article.

We talk about "hazards" in our work environments regularly in the safety trade. Have you prepared your staff on how to anticipate and deal with potential and unimagined hazards of your workplace? Do they react correctly without pondering, arguing, or refusing? Now is your chance to train them and get them ready.

Consider the following:

  • Plan ahead. If you have a continuity of operations (COOP) plan, cast a critical eye on immediate response after any large-scale crisis and have on hand what you'll need to protect your employees. You have to consider what can happen -- fire, earthquake, etc. -- but also give serious thought to the unthinkable, such as 160 tornadoes plowing a path through your state or business area. Make a list of the specific head/face hazards your employees will face from physical damage, puncture wounds, cuts, falling chunks of debris, burns, smoke, and chemical vapors or splashes. Include basics such as hard hats, faceshields, and lots of vision protection, in addition to the gloves and work boots that usually come readily to mind. Make a list, adding to it often. Divide your response supplies between at least two locations to ensure something survives and is accessible. Have a great relationship with several vendors for critical replacements quickly.
  • Employee identification. Can you identify your employees from a distance? Use your hard hats as calling cards so you can locate your folks during cleanup operations.
  • First aid. Ensure that your first aid kit includes basic eye treatment for foreign objects, such as blowing/falling glass, dust, chemical residue, and even fiberglass insulation that has been pulverized. Be ready for splinters. Have flushing solutions such as portable eyewash at the ready. Insect bites, sunburn, the list goes on. Whatever you will need, have it on hand. Make sure your employees know the on-the-job injury procedure, where to obtain treatment, and whom to call.
  • Plan for power outages. As I wrote these words, hundreds of thousands of locations were without power. How would this affect your operation? Do you have hard copies of necessary paperwork, or is everything online? Online is great for quick updates but not too reliable without power, servers, or buildings. Part of your COOP plan may include full sets of needed manuals, phone numbers, etc. How about your safety supply vendors? Have you updated your list lately? Remember to contact your medical provider so they are also aware of the potential for mail and payment interruption and other logistic issues.
  • Plan for updates during the event. Make sure supervisors know how to contact management, even using "gofers" to move supplies, replacement PPE items, instructions, or financing for desperately needed purchases. Choose remote gathering points for congested or dangerous places.
  • Train. Use posters, handouts, incentives, interactive drills, reminders, and more. Drill the information into your employees on how to be safe in any environment. Talk to your employees in groups or one on one, but get the message out. OK, so your employees will groan when they see yet another friendly safety reminder; the reality is that you are preparing them to work more safely in any hostile or unknown environment and possibly to lead others, as well. Keep the concept simple: why we use hard hats even in unknown situations, vision protection and the specific hazards you know about in your workplace. Then, remind them of all the unknowns in a disaster situation. Show examples and be graphic, even gory, if it works. Make them remember what to do and when. Years ago, an employee showed me the hard hat he was wearing when struck a glancing blow by a falling live line. It made quite an impression on me, even now.

Chances are, you will never know the impact your efforts make. As safety professionals, we get tired of repeating the same messages over and over and often feel our words fall on uninterested ears. Most supervisors think "We'll call safety when we need you," but we know that is too late. We also know that repetition works. Most of us learned basic tornado safety of "duck and cover" from childhood school drills, either for tornado safety or civil defense. Years or decades later, we almost instinctively react correctly. Our efforts do make a difference, often in ways we will never imagine. Our consistent positive safety attitude and living as an active safety beacon is watched much closely than you think.

Thanks to everyone who responded and helped during the April weather disasters. True heroes are the ones who assisted either long before the event or during the immediate response and the rebuilding efforts. So, yes -- safety professionals are certainly unsung heroes.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Product Showcase

  • SlateSafety BAND V2

    SlateSafety BAND V2

    SlateSafety's BAND V2 is the most rugged, easy-to-use connected safety wearable to help keep your workforce safe and help prevent heat stress. Worn on the upper arm, this smart PPE device works in tandem with the SlateSafety V2 system and the optional BEACON V2 environmental monitor. It includes comprehensive, enterprise-grade software that provides configurable alert thresholds, real-time alerts, data, and insights into your safety program's performance all while ensuring your data is secure and protected. Try it free for 30 days. 3