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Tornado Approaching City
Tornado Approaching City
Tornado Approaching City
Tornado Approaching City
Tornado Approaching City

How to Prevent Injuries and Deaths Due to Natural Disasters

June 15, 2022
Safety technology is more important than ever in the face of climate change.

Rain or shine isn’t just the motto for mail carriers in the U.S. The same could be said for warehouse workers. In the supply chain world, they’re an important link in the chain to make sure goods get from point A to point B. Any disruption can cause major delays and problems.

That’s exactly what happened to an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., after it was struck by a tornado last December. Amazon said workers at the warehouse had little time to prepare when the National Weather Service declared a tornado warning on a Friday night. The tornado arrived soon after, collapsing both sides of the warehouse and caving in its roof. Tragically, six people were fatally injured and another severely injured. OSHA inspectors looked into whether workplace safety rules were followed and ultimately issued a Hazard Alert Letter to Amazon, requiring the online retailer to review its severe weather emergency procedures.

The incident raises a big issue in warehouse safety. In today’s current climate, warehouse workers face not only increasing pressure from supply chain delays and worker shortages, but also natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. As warehouse workers face more risks than ever in the logistics industry, how can operations managers keep their teams safe while minimizing disruptions?

Climate Change and Weather-Related Dangers

What happened in Edwardsville wasn’t a one-off event. Unfortunately, workers will face greater risk of being trapped in warehouses due to tornados, hurricanes, fires and other natural disasters as the effects of climate change make our environment less habitable and more dangerous. As the Earth's temperature continues to rise, natural disasters and extreme weather will become more frequent and/or severe. This increases the annual probability of events that are more intense than manufacturing assets are constructed to withstand, increasing the likelihood of further supply chain disruptions.

For example, tornado activity is picking up throughout the Southeast and in the southern portion of the Midwest. Research also shows tornadoes are also clustering on fewer days in the year so that days with many tornadoes are becoming more common. While it is difficult to prove a direct cause of climate change as the culprit, the data show growing amounts of tornadoes in regions throughout the year and a new epicenter of tornadoes forming in the Southern United States.

It’s not just tornadoes that pose a concern; the probability of a hurricane of sufficient intensity to disrupt semiconductor supply chains may grow two to four times by 2040. Furthermore, the probability that heavy rare earths production is severely disrupted from extreme rainfall may increase two to three times by 2030.

In the wake of the growing evidence that climate change-related natural disasters are on the rise, there needs to be a demand for new guidelines that prioritize worker safety. What has worked in the past might not work tomorrow, and it’s imperative to act now in order to protect workers from what happened at Amazon with clear action plans, depending on the particular weather threats of an area.

Infrastructure and Operations

Whether it’s to protect against a hurricane or tornado, buildings need to be fortified for high force winds. A common form of damage during tornadoes is doors being ripped off, allowing high winds to enter the warehouse and cause further destruction to machinery, inventory and structural components.

Installing doors that can withstand very high winds can help companies avoid this problem. Similarly, large flat roofs are most prone to being damaged or torn from a building, so bracing the roof can help it stay attached. 

And, in areas like California, earthquakes are a major concern. To keep inventory secure during an earthquake, rack storage should be bolted to the ground and seismic-rated, meaning it’s been specifically tested for durability in times of ground motions often caused by earthquakes. Barriers on the front and back of rack shelving, such as wire mesh,  can prevent falls during earthquakes.

Flooding from heavy rainfall and hurricanes can cause numerous types of damage throughout a warehouse. Not only can it destroy inventory, but it can also negatively impact forklift engines, cause persistent moisture that can lead to mold growth and damage electrical systems. The first step in preventing flood damage is to keep the interior of the warehouse dry. Drainage pipes can be fitted with non-return valves, and doors and ventilation spaces can be equipped with guards that can minimize water seeping through from the outside. Electrical installations and fuse boxes should be elevated so there’s no chance they’ll be submerged. Also, forklifts and other warehouse vehicles can be stored on elevated loading bays or another lifted space to protect them from water damage.

Preparedness Training

When it comes to disasters, there’s no chance of a proper response if you and your staff aren’t well trained. Further, poorly prepared staff risk the chance of making a disaster worse.

There should always be a clear emergency chain of command set up before any problems occur. Each department should have both an appointed leader and a backup who will be responsible for gathering employees to the appropriate place. The meeting location should be known and agreed upon ahead of time, and a staff count needs to be taken by each section head when the group arrives at the predetermined location.

Each employee should be trained and tested on the emergency plans for evacuating the building. Warehouse managers should keep multiple copies of these plans visible throughout the facility, and staff should be reminded frequently of where they need to go and what they need to do.

Most importantly, emergency preparedness isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it type of plan. Make a point of revisiting the procedures, especially if you work in a warehouse with high turnover in employees or seasonal staff. It’s important to revisit, reevaluate and ensure everyone knows what to do and where to be in different emergency situations.

Technology

Another prevention element to implement is updated technology that enables constant communication to workers at risk in the warehouse. Equipping the workforce with up-to-date mobile, wearable devices with optimized communication and emergency alerts can help provide the workers with more time to react to dangerous weather situations.

Investing in platforms that allow management to have a bird’s-eye view of the location of each worker will provide operations with more efficient ways to get workers to safety and ensure no worker is unaccounted for. With proper mobile devices, workers can also communicate with management and loved ones to confirm their safety as well as receive and emergency plans and directions instantly in the event of a natural disaster.

Warehouse preparedness is never a bad investment. And with climate change trending the way it has been, it’s become a pressing need, no matter what part of the country you live in.

Gabe Grifoni is founder and CEO of Rufus Labs, developer of a connected operator platform for warehouse and industrial environments, comprised of workforce analytics software and rugged wearable technology.

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