After the Storm: Safety for Recovery Workers | March 2022

Between wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the South and Southeast, the contiguous United States experienced 20 weather/climate events last year that each caused at least $1 billion in damage. This event total includes tornadoes, severe storms, and heat and cold waves. It’s also the third-highest total ever recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Environmental Information Centers.

In the wake of devastating weather events, tens of thousands of storm recovery workers step in to help affected communities. A wide variety of potential dangers await you.

“One of the biggest challenges with recovering from a storm is that you don’t know what you’re getting into until you start,” said Ian Madison, senior director of security at Entergy, a company utility company based in New Orleans. “You have a lot of extended damage. There are a lot of variables involved. »

Proper training and constant communication can ensure workers are prepared and aware at every stage of the recovery process, according to Madison and other experts.

A wide range of hazards

Just as severe weather can vary from coast to coast, the many hazards they leave behind for recovery teams can vary.

Christopher Lawver, acting director of the Office of Emergency Management and Preparedness at OSHA’s Technical Assistance and Emergency Management Branch, said these hazards can be classified as biological (for example, bodily fluids, sewage, standing water), environmental (animals, insects), chemical (spills and leaks) and electrical (downed power lines). Specifically, hazards may include:

  • Carbon monoxide from portable generators
  • Damaged gas lines and other compromised infrastructure
  • Vehicular traffic, including traffic control
  • Heat or cold stress
  • Exposure to mold, asbestos or lead in buildings
  • Falls from height
  • The use of power tools

Cory Worden, safety adviser for the City of Houston Health Department, said the concerns go beyond the obvious.

“On the one hand, you have the professional part of it,” he says. “Then you also need really heightened situational awareness. Every time there’s a different disaster, there’s a lot of things that happen that people didn’t see coming.

This includes widespread floodwaters, which South Texas experienced after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

“It’s like we’re talking about the COVID-19 pandemic,” Worden said. “We want to control all the variables that we can. It’s less that we will have to face later when time is running out.

Recovery stages

In his role as systems security manager on Entergy’s storm team, Madison manages what he calls the three phases of storm recovery: mobilization assessment, restoration, and extended operations.

In anticipation of predicted weather events, the Incident Command System – used by public agencies to manage emergencies, often in conjunction with private entities – is initiated and resources such as workers and equipment are brought into the area. Challenges include housing the thousands of arriving workers, unfamiliar travel conditions and communication issues.

“During Hurricane Laura (which hit Louisiana in August 2020), it was very difficult for several days to get in touch with people because all the cell towers were gone,” Madison said.

When recovery workers arrive on the scene after a disaster, he added, many want to help as quickly as possible.

“It can manifest itself in making the wrong decisions if you rush, ignore the policies, procedures and safeguards put in place to ensure that the work you are doing – which is inherently risky – can be done safely. safety,” Madison said.

During the restoration phase, when services begin to come back online, injuries from electrical contact can be common, Madison warned. Another danger can be the potential for violence directed at recovery agents by frustrated customers.

Additionally, with traffic lights and stop signs out of order, motor vehicles are often directed “by a pointing hand and finger,” Madison explained. “This is a time when communication and miscommunication can be a challenge.” This can lead to vehicles hitting workers.

The third phase is when the recovery work extends from a few days to several weeks, and sometimes longer. The results can be fatigue, cut corners, lack of focus, time constraints, and customer and media frustration if critical infrastructure is affected. On some occasions, these can lead to physical violence directed at workers.

Focus on training

During recent severe weather events, Madison said a particular training exercise paid off. “Over the past two years, we’ve had tabletop exercises that have come surprisingly close to what we’ve actually experienced in the field,” he said. “The more you invest in these exercises, preparations and scenarios – physically getting people into a room, 100% focused – the more real you make it for everyone involved.”

This formation does not need to be “accompanied by much fanfare” to be effective. Resources are abundant when it comes to recovery after a storm. On its Emergency Preparedness and Response webpage, OSHA offers more than 100 fact sheets, QuickCards, and other resources to help educate employers and workers.

Along with Federal Emergency Management Agency preparedness training, local, state, and national emergency management agencies are good resources for training programs.

“The more proactive we are, the less it can go wrong when it happens,” Worden said.