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Tornado Preparedness in the Workplace: Keeping Employees Safe


The past few weeks, the weather in the Midwest has been dominated by severe storms, including heavy downpours, flooding, large hail, strong winds, and damaging tornadoes. And what’s worse, it appears to just keep coming. Last week alone, dozens of tornadoes were reported spanning from Oklahoma to Kansas and Missouri, with the most violent ripping through Jefferson City, Missouri taking the lives of three people, trapping many in the wreckage of their homes and causing widespread damage.

While tornadoes can occur at any time and anywhere in the U.S., most occur during the months of April, May and June, often referred to as “Tornado Season”. In fact, of the average 1,239 annual U.S. tornadoes, 55 percent occur during these months. But it isn’t just the volume of tornadoes that make this time of year so dangerous, the intensity is at its peak as well, resulting in more fatalities and damage.

Here’s how employers can keep their workplaces and employees safe in the event of a tornado.

Be Prepared

Oftentimes, tornadoes strike without warning making knowing all the signs and being prepared a must to help reduce the likelihood of employee injuries or fatalities.

  • Develop a Disaster Preparedness Plan. Unfortunately, most businesses do not have a “game plan” in their employee handbook for worst-case scenarios, like tornadoes. But without a disaster preparedness plan, it may mean negligence on your behalf, which equates to liability and possible lawsuits. Find out what to consider when creating your business’ emergency plan in this popular blog post. New call-to-action
  • Select a Safe Place. Know where employees will go in all situations. While the safest place is in an underground tornado shelter or basement, sometimes it’s not an option. According to the Red Cross, other places to go when a tornado warning has been issued include:
    • A small, windowless, interior room or hallway on the lowest level of a sturdy building (next safest option).
    • Stay away from doors, windows, and outdoor walls.
    • Avoid auditoriums, gymnasiums or cafeteria-style rooms which usually have a large flat root.
    • For employees who routinely work outdoors or in a building that isn’t sturdy, they should seek an underground shelter or sturdy building immediately upon warning and should never wait until they see a tornado. If they can safely drive to shelter, they should do so, but should never try to outrun a tornado.
    • If outdoor workers are unable to get to a sturdy building or shelter and have access to a vehicle, they should be advised to get into one, buckle in and put their head down between their legs, lower than the vehicle windows with both hands over the back of the head*.
    • The National Weather Service advises travelers to lie down in the ditch with both hands over the back of the head. The idea is to be lower than the debris that is flying around as most tornado injuries are from being struck by flying debris.
    • When employees are traveling or working outdoors and weather conditions are favorable for tornadoes, a safe spot should be identified before the start of the workday.
  • Conduct Regularly Scheduled Tornado Drills. Employees should know what the alarm system will be, how they are notified and where to seek shelter.
  • Know the Signs. A tornado may be forming or approaching if you notice any of these signs.
    • Dark, often greenish colored sky.
    • Wall cloud.
    • Cloud of debris.
    • Large hail or heavy rain followed by a dead calm.
    • Funnel cloud (visible rotation in the cloud base).
    • Roaring noise.
  • Monitor the Local Weather. If severe weather is predicted for your area creating conditions favorable for tornadoes, the local news or the National Weather Service should be monitored for watches and warnings. Employees should be regularly updated on weather conditions via email, text or other methods. Always have a primary communication method and a secondary method.
  • Understand the Difference Between a Tornado Watch and Warning.
    • Tornado Watch: A tornado has not been spotted yet, but conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes in and near the watch area. Watches are generally issued for broad areas.
    • Tornado Warning:  A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Go immediately to a basement, storm shelter or interior room. Warnings are generally issued for highly localized areas.
  • Understand How Your Local Community Warning System Works. While community warning systems help to alert of a possible tornado, sirens should never be the sole warning system used by your workplace.

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Know How to Respond in the Aftermath

  • Gather in a Safe Spot. Once the tornado has passed, employees should know where to gather and how you will communicate with them.
  • Complete a Head Count. Use a roster or checklist to account for employees, customers and/or visitors.
  • Check Employees for Injuries. If a worker is severely injured, seek medical assistance for them immediately. Never move a severely injured person unless they would be in severe danger of further injuries if not moved.
  • Continue to Monitor the Local News and Weather.
  • Always Wear Adequate Protective Gear When Handling or Moving Through Debris.
  • Be on the Alert for the Smell of Gas. Report possible broken gas lines to the utility company immediately.
  • Watch Out for Fallen Power Lines.
  • Stay Out of Damaged Buildings.
  • Photograph Damage for Insurance Claims.

Workplace Safety

According to OSHA, employers are responsible for the safety and health of their workers and for providing a safe and healthful workplace. Employers are required to protect workers from the anticipated hazards associated with severe weather events, like tornadoes.

 Further Reading: Recovering from Disaster: 7 Steps for Protecting Your Business' Most Important Assets.

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Written by Randy Clayton