While natural disasters have always been a concern, they are thought to occur more frequently than in past decades. One study estimates that about 100 events happened in the 1980s with this number increasing to 300 since 2000. This increase can have devastating effects on communities, but the impact on construction sites and the construction industry at large isn’t widely discussed.
It's important for construction professionals to consider the impact disasters have for a couple of reasons. First, construction sites can be more dangerous in the midst of disaster, and it's your responsibility as a construction professional to mitigate as much risk as you can.
Second, construction can be delayed or become more costly in the aftermath of such disasters, which can then negatively impact the communities and people who depend on that construction project.
Whether it’s fire, natural flood, or hurricane, having an emergency plan for disasters and worst-case scenarios can save money and even lives. It’s not a matter of “if” your site will be affected, but “how” you can respond when it is.
Natural Disaster Effects on Construction Sites
We already know that disasters wreak havoc on every place they touch, and construction sites aren’t immune to the destruction. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy cost the World Trade Center construction site $185 million in damages and affected nearby utility services.
The cost of labor and supplies can also suffer, because the price of building materials can skyrocket after a disaster when demand surges during widespread rebuilding, and labor shortages can result, as well. A massive hailstorm in Sidney, Australia, resulted in a 30% increase in the cost of strand board and a 2000% increase in the price of tarpaulin sheets. For a construction project to stay on time and within budget, damage to property is just one of the many obstacles to overcome after a disaster.
Understanding the Risk of Natural Disasters and Construction Sites
Construction sites are unique in that they house expensive equipment and supplies while also being vulnerable to the elements. Sites also contain unsecured materials that can get caught in a wind or flood, turning them into a potential hazard that may hit other structures, people, or pets.
Because many of the materials are flammable and concentrated in high stacks or pallets, lightning strikes or fire can easily turn a site into a very dangerous situation for the crew and those in the immediate vicinity.
There is also the matter of the height for some of these projects. In their beginning stages, structures may not be resistant to the wind and water that come with disasters. When these structures are weakened, they are prone to collapse, which is another danger to the crew and community. Evacuating workers from heights is a time-consuming and dangerous endeavor – even more so when wind or fire is a threat.
Necessary Safety Precautions for Construction Sites
No two construction sites are the same, and how they respond to various disasters can’t be predicted. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow general guidelines for securing sites and mitigating risk. OSHA currently requires certain industries to have plans in place for emergencies, and construction sites might need to assign a Safety Coordinator to handle specific tasks. They include:
- Identifying a disaster and putting the disaster plan into action.
- Supervising the emergency efforts, including any evacuation.
- Contacting the appropriate emergency services department and acting as a liaison for them when they arrive. Ensuring they have access to the site, whether by vehicle or on foot.
- Shutting down operations or machinery.
- Overseeing the use of fire extinguishers by trained crew members.
The safety coordinator should have a good working knowledge of the types of emergencies that can arise and the plan for all. They can review these plans with crew workers so no one is confused about what to do when disaster strikes.
Natural Disaster Preparedness
The Safety Coordinator should have a good working knowledge of what to do in the following disaster scenarios.
Those along the coast are at risk during hurricane season. Use these tips to plan and prioritize safety.
- Don't try to work or even stay onsite if a hurricane is coming. There's no safe way to be around equipment and materials in the path of a hurricane.
- Place materials that can get damaged or become flying debris in a secure location. Remember, some materials leak chemicals when they get wet. Use the time you have to keep items away from the most likely places for damage.
- Make a list of items onsite that you may need to replace. This saves time when estimating for insurance.
- Prepare large equipment for high winds such as lowering booms and anchoring large pieces of scaffolding. Move the equipment you can to a safer location until after the event.
- Get ready for flooding since this is typical after a hurricane. Close off open drains and put gates or sandbags where they can prevent excess water damage.
Lightning is common yet deadly, and with so much of the construction site acting as a lightning rod, it’s not safe for the crew to be onsite when lightning is in the area. Take these additional steps to prevent harm.
- Have your crew go inside, away from windows, until at least 30 minutes after the lightning risk has passed. Remove metal safety gear or accessories until it's safe again.
- Keep electrical equipment unplugged, if you can. Don’t risk going back out to unplug it, however.
- A vehicle can be used as a shelter if no other buildings are available. Don’t park near trees, metal equipment, or structures. You want a safe perimeter around the vehicles so they’re away from items that could attract lightning and to the vehicle.
- Prepare for fire. Lightning can strike and start fires suddenly. Have extinguishers ready and know how to reach the closest fire department if the worst happens.
While flooding can occur from human activities, it most often happens as the result of natural events. Here’s how to reduce flood risk.
- Anticipate where flooding is most likely to happen and add drainage, if possible. Refer to flood plain maps where available.
- Observe the contour of the land to plan for any sediment runoff.
- Try to protect materials that may get damaged by water and separate or move them before flooding occurs. Place electrical and mechanical equipment above any anticipated flood levels.
- Stock up on barriers, such as sandbags, gates, or other structures.
- Evacuate if the flooding is sudden, such as in a flash flood. Do not take shelter in site structures or vehicle cabins.
- Don't walk or drive through flood water. Chemicals may have leached into the water, and unseen hazards (such as electrical currents or sinkholes) can lurk beneath the surface.
While meteorological tools have made it easier to detect and even predict a potential tornado, they still happen with little warning, leaving construction sites with just minutes to prepare for the worst. Consider these guidelines to minimize damage to property and life.
- Provide tornado shelters, or identify places your crew can take shelter nearby.
- Monitor weather constantly during tornado season, using local weather stations or national weather alert devices. Most cell phones can be set to receive tornado watch and warning alerts.
- Have an on-site alert system in place. Whether it’s a site alarm or another notification system, don’t assume workers know what’s happening. Make it management’s job to alert them.
- In the event of a tornado warning, turn off equipment, leave the vehicle, and seek shelter. Vehicles are not a good place to take cover, as they can become airborne.
Tornado watches mean that conditions are ideal for a tornado to form, but it doesn’t mean there is a tornado. Use the watch to secure as much as you can, empty dumpsters, or get people to safety, since watches also accompany thunderstorms, hailstorms, and other weather events. A warning means that a tornado has been spotted or a rotation has been detected by radar. Get to safety!
Earthquakes are perhaps the most unexpected of disasters since there is no advance warning possible. If you are in an area that is prone to these events, have the following plan in place to minimize harm.
- Know where to go. Unfinished structures aren’t safe, and there may not be many solid objects to secure yourself against. Get away from anything that can fall, but don’t travel so far away as to become unreachable if needed.
- Learn the “drop, cover, and hold on” technique which emphasizes a low posture on your hands and knees with your head covered by one arm. Crawl in this position until you get to a shelter or safety. Trees make good shelter when there is no permanent structure nearby. Leave vehicles or equipment immediately.
- Look for fire. Infrastructure damage happens quickly during an earthquake, and it can be hard to know what’s been harmed until fires start. Be ready with extinguishers and educate the crew on how to avoid fire or electrical hazards, such as downed power lines or damaged generators.
Human-Caused Disaster Preparedness
Not all disasters happen in nature. Some of the more devastating incidents happen by accident or due to criminal activity by humans.
Whether it's a fire that starts onsite or a fire that comes in from elsewhere (like a raging wildfire), the procedures for protecting your crew and equipment are the same.
- Know the risks. Construction sites are full of possible fire risks, including chemicals, welding equipment, and large machinery. Anything that can produce a spark can start a fire, so go over the dangers with your team members. Separate combustibles and keep them stored away from heat sources.
- Create a plan. Know where crew members should go in the case of a fire and when and how to put out fires. Not all fires should be approached, so have a set of criteria for them to know when it’s too big to handle without professional help.
- Communicate fires quickly. Everyone on the site should know if there’s a fire. Set up an alert system that clearly and efficiently tells people what they should know.
- Clean up after yourself (and others). Debris can quickly become kindling in a fire, so keep clutter, trash, and combustible materials picked up and disposed of properly at all times. Have a way for crew members to smoke away from fire hazards and dispose of their cigarettes without risk to the rest of the site.
What to Do in the Aftermath of a Disaster
Having a set of natural disaster safety tips is just the start of keeping your crew and the surrounding community protected. After an event, the risk doesn’t go away. In fact, new challenges will present themselves from debris to infrastructure damage. With all these disasters, know how you will go back to the job site and what things to look for. Creating a plan for before a disaster is one thing; having a plan for afterward is also important.
You can usually get advice and help from emergency response teams, and FEMA guidelines are a great place to educate yourself on the details for each disaster type.
More Resources on Disaster Preparedness and Safety
There are many more things to consider in the face of an emergency, and these are just some of the scenarios you may encounter on the construction site. For best practices on how to handle job site dangers, including those that may be maximized during a natural disaster, see the OSHA guidelines for emergency management. They include best practices for everything from heat exhaustion to poor air quality after a fire.
Managers, and those tasked with safety efforts, should review these regularly to comply with OSHA guidelines and be better informed on how to keep their teams and community safe.