EHS Spotlight: Weathering Fire and Floods

Apr 23, 2020, 16:57 PM
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March/April 2020

By Megan Quinn

Extreme weather is becoming more frequent in the United States, raising the risk for wildfires and floods. Here’s how recyclers are planning long term to keep workers safe from climate-related disasters.

Weathering Fires and FloodsWater from Wisconsin’s Fond du Lac River was quickly spilling over its banks and rushing down the street. Workers at Sadoff Iron & Metal Co.’s Fond du Lac facility, only a few yards from the river, weren’t ready. “You wouldn’t realize how quickly a flood like that can happen,” says Jerry Heitman, Sadoff’s safety and environmental health manager. “We went from being dry to being under 2 feet of water within 25 minutes. In some places, it was as high as 4 feet.”

It was March 2019, and Fond du Lac was going through a period of “weird weather,” he says. The nearby Fond du Lac River had frozen over, but unseasonably warm conditions caused the ice to start breaking apart and flowing downstream quickly. Then, it started raining. Broken chunks of ice “the size of semitrailers” rose with the river, eventually getting stuck under a bridge. “It started plugging up the river and overflowing the banks,” he says.

The few employees who were at the facility that day were able to get in a company truck and drive out safely, but the flood caused about $400,000 in damage, Heitman says. Sadoff has since updated its flood response protocols, purchased special flood-proof gates to contain scrap bins, and marked the outside of all of its buildings to show employees how high they can anticipate floodwaters to rise. Workers also park large equipment on higher ground and have put up signs that more clearly label where electrical outlets are to prevent employees or first responders from electric shock injuries. Those improvements paid off: When another, less destructive ice jam happened this February, Sadoff employees snapped into action and protected the facility. “This type of [flooding] hadn’t happened here for 10 years, but then it happened twice in two years. So we knew we had to make these changes permanent,” he says.

Sadoff isn’t the only business affected by extreme weather. The warming climate has created unpredictable weather patterns that can affect workers’ health and safety, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Earth’s temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1880 and more than twice that since 1981. The number “might seem small, but it means a significant increase in accumulated heat. That extra heat is driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, [and] intensifying heavy rainfall,” NOAA states on its climate data webpage. Scientists predict that warmer average temperatures will continue to contribute to drought conditions in some parts of the United States, leading to larger wildfires and longer fire seasons. Meanwhile, hurricanes and tropical cyclones are predicted to become more intense and create heavier rain conditions, NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab reports.

That trend has continued into January 2020, which was the warmest ever recorded on Earth and the fifth-hottest in the United States, NOAA says. The four warmest Januaries have all occurred since 2016. The National Climate Assessment, a report that tracks climate change impacts in the United States, estimates temperatures will rise another 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in most areas of the United States over the next few decades. 

Prepare for future emergencies

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that recycling facilities have a written emergency action plan, and it’s a good idea to update the plan each year and retrain employees on safety procedures. At Sierra International Machinery (Bakersfield, Calif.), “the plan doesn’t usually change that much from year to year,” says safety manager Felipe Guerra. “The plan and the preparedness training is so everyone knows what to do in an emergency, but it applies to what’s happening inside our facility. We don’t use it for long-term planning for what might happen with the weather in the future.” 

To think more broadly about how severe weather and changing climate conditions may affect your facility and employees, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends drawing up a disaster resiliency plan. This plan includes many of the same features as the emergency action plan, such as clear written directions on how to safely evacuate or shelter in place during emergencies, but it also includes protocols for how to better prepare your facility long-term for extreme weather such as floods and fires.

First, FEMA recommends brainstorming what kinds of weather and climate-related hazards might affect your employees’ health and safety long term. Is your facility in a flood plain? Is your area experiencing more wildfires, heavier rains, or hotter summers that affect how long employees can work outside? Identifying these longer-term risks can make it easier to make bite-sized changes now instead of reacting to big problems later on, FEMA says in its Business Continuity and Preparedness guide.

In its 2019 sustainability report, Sims Metal Management (Rye, N.Y.) identifies several climate-related issues the company thinks might affect business and employee safety in the near future. One problem it foresees is a rise in extreme heat that could expose workers to heat stress, which prompted it to require facilities to change working hours to avoid having employees work during the hottest parts of the day, it says. The report notes that an increase in intense wind and rain could affect truck drivers and workers who load materials at docks, and more frequent flooding or more intense heat could damage or destroy the company’s data storage sites. Extreme weather has already affected Sims’ bottom line: In the second half of 2019, “Sims experienced nearly a million-dollar negative impact through its supply chain due to heavy flooding in some southern states in the U.S. which made it difficult to move material and lowered intake volumes,” the report states. “While not all floods are due to climate change, this cost is a clear indicator of the increasing financial exposure to extreme weather patterns,” it says.

Update your communication strategies

Planning to weatherproof your safety protocols can be a daunting task, but there is one action every recycler can tackle right now without spending any money: Update all employees’ contact information, says Mel Wright, owner of Wright’s Scrap & Recycling (Beaumont, Texas). In a weather emergency, “if you can’t reach your employees or you don’t know where they are, you can’t help them,” he says.

Wright’s Scrap & Recycling is in an area of Texas that has been hit with numerous hurricanes, tropical storms, and other forms of severe weather. On one day in September 2019, employees left the scrapyard thinking they were going home to hunker down for a “rain event” forecast to drop 10 inches of rain. It quickly morphed into Tropical Storm Imelda, which brought 42 inches of rain in three days—14 inches of which flooded the office. The company uses a phone tree to alert employees when there’s an emergency that might affect their safety on site or on the way to and from work, and managers send a group text to their team to make sure everyone gets the message. “There’s always someone who just got a new phone number, or their phone’s off because they couldn’t pay their bill,” he says. “You have to verify their number, or the message doesn’t get to them. We have other employees check in with them when that happens.”

One easy way to keep employees’ contact information up to date is to have workers confirm their phone numbers when you renew health insurance paperwork, says Sarah Willcuts, safety manager for Andersen’s Sales and Salvage (Greeley, Colo.). Her scrapyard is in a flood plain, but she worries more about Colorado’s temperamental spring weather, which can surprise even longtime residents with a blizzard, or wildfires in the summer and fall. In those cases, managers can quickly text workers and tell them not to come into work. “We’re constantly sending the message that we need up-to-date information. Like everything with safety, it’s a matter of proper communication,” she says.

Sadoff recently started using an app called Alert Media, which is designed to alert employees of emergencies or other “critical events.” The customizable app helps Sadoff reach employees via phone call, text message, e-mail, push notification, or social media. Administrators can enable read receipts and other features to make sure employees see and respond to the messages. If there’s severe weather and the facility is closed, managers plan to use the app to send text messages and e-mails to the appropriate set of employees or all employees depending on the situation and message, Heitman says. The company is testing the app but plans to implement it in the spring.

Practice good housekeeping

Good housekeeping and smart storage habits are other key pieces of long-term resiliency planning, FEMA says. These habits are a critical part of daily operations at Sierra, Guerra says. “When it comes to natural disasters, poor housekeeping can definitely amplify the nature of a catastrophic event,” he says. The company’s Southern California facilities have not experienced a major wildfire, but workers don’t take any chances. The area’s very dry weather and intense seasonal Santa Ana winds can raise fire danger considerably, and keeping the perimeter clear of trash and weeds is the best way to reduce fire risk, he says. Employees pick up trash along the borders of the facility at least once a week, and Sierra hires a company to spray for weeds twice a year.

 Many recyclers have rearranged their yards after experiencing fire or flood damage. Like Sadoff, Andersen’s has trained employees to park heavy equipment in specific locations on higher ground. Wright’s employees know when to move the equipment near the front gate to protect the facility from high winds.

Heitman says Sadoff goes to great lengths to protect equipment from damage, not just because it’s expensive to replace, but because damaged equipment can be dangerous for employees who might not be aware it is not working properly due to waterlogged hydraulic lines or other issues. Recyclers who protect their equipment are also better able to help neighbors or the city recover from a disaster, he points out. “We keep in contact with the city, so they understand we have equipment they can utilize if they need,” he says, listing generators, cranes, respirators, and gloves as examples.

Though Wright’s Scrap & Recycling has weathered more than a dozen different tropical storms, hurricanes, and heavy rainstorms, there’s always something to improve after each event, Wright says. After one storm, workers changed where they store some of the loose scrap to prevent it from injuring anyone during high winds and flooding. “When you’re preparing to protect your property, you have to secure everything down, which is hard when you have a lot of loose scrap. You do what you can,” he says.

The company learned the hard way to keep essential electronics off the floor. It was “caught by surprise” by a serious rainstorm a few years ago, which destroyed several computers and flooded the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet full of important documents. “Once it’s wet, it’s a mess,” he says. “Most people know to back up all your files and have some redundancy, but now we store it all off-site as well.” Keeping electronics off the floor not only helps prevent water damage, it also helps avoid possible electrocutions, he says.

Some companies are considering investing in electronics made specifically to withstand disasters in order to protect documents and allow workers to evacuate without worrying about whether to take computers or other electronics, he says. Many businesses lose internet access after a hurricane or fire, which makes it impossible to download records from the cloud. Companies such as ioSafe make backup hard drives meant to stay on-site so businesses can access their files and data immediately after a disaster. The drives are fireproof up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and can survive after being submerged in water for up to three days, the company says.

Train employees on what essential tasks they must complete before leaving the facility during an emergency, Guerra says, but also make sure they know their lives are more important than equipment. “[We] do a lot of training, so they know to push the emergency stop buttons [on equipment] and go. They also know when to just get out and not worry about trying to save the computers or anything.”

Staying on top of regularly scheduled training is a good way to keep workers prepared for bigger disasters, Heitman says. For example, he recommends reviewing your evacuation plan each year to make weather-related updates and to make sure employees know their roles. Sadoff employees took a refresher course on the facility’s evacuation plan just after its most recent flood, he says. The company also keeps a detailed spreadsheet that lists each visitor and employee on Sadoff property, along with the location of where each individual should be in the facility, “all the way down to the UPS guy,” he says, so workers can quickly determine whether emergency responders should be looking for someone.

Invest in infrastructure

Some recyclers have made larger investments to mitigate extreme weather issues by retrofitting or rebuilding parts of their facilities to better handle floods or fires. These fixes can be expensive, but they ultimately save money over time because facilities that withstand regional weather patterns better protect employees and your business, Wright says. Wright’s Scrap & Recycling was in the middle of building a new office in 2005 just before Hurricane Rita hit. The building’s ground floor sat about 6 feet above the road and wasn’t flooded during that storm—but it did get waterlogged in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey. “We’re looking at building another building now, and we’d want it to have a floor that’s higher than that 6-foot level,”
he says.

After last year’s ice jam flood, Sadoff invested in new flood gates for the facility, which hold water back from bins of scrap, especially turnings. Employees can pull Gaylords behind the gates “to keep the oil from turnings from getting into the stormwater,” Heitman says.

Sierra is in the process of updating its fire suppression systems to comply with new California regulations, which require securing sprinkler systems in three places to reduce the possibility of ruptures during an earthquake, Guerra says. Sierra is also working on updating its stormwater system to handle flooding within the facility. “These upgrades are expensive, but that’s what we have to do to stay safe,” he says.

Andersen’s Sales and Salvage finished constructing a new nonferrous building in 2018 that has a raised foundation, making the floor a few inches higher off the ground than before. Andersen’s has not experienced a major flood; it narrowly avoided damage from a 100-year flood in 2013 that severely damaged homes and businesses throughout the region, Willcutts says. She is thankful for her scrapyard’s good fortune, but she says no business is safe from changing weather patterns. “We were definitely looking big-picture when we built the new building,” she says. “The city approved our design, so everything in the building—in theory—should be protected.”

Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.


Weather disaster safety tools

The following resources can help you update your safety protocols:

FEMA Business Continuity and Preparedness guide: This step-by-step guide helps businesses identify potential weather-related hazards, assess vulnerabilities and potential impacts from extreme weather, and implement a plan to help protect employees and visitors.

The National Climate Assessment: Put together by a federal advisory committee and reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences, the assessment shows the current and anticipated future impacts of climate change in the United States. Explore the report to find specific climate change-related data for your region, along with mitigation and adaptation suggestions.

Florida Division of Emergency Management disaster preparedness checklist: Recyclers such as Wright’s Scrap & Recycling use these tools to plan for disasters such as flooding and hurricanes.

OSHA Emergency Action Plan tool: This online tool helps recyclers build and update their emergency action plan.

Keep workers and facilities safe from two climate-related dangers with these safety tips.  

  • 2020
  • Mar_Apr

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