I arrived in Harrisburg, Ill., Friday afternoon a little more than 48 hours after an EF4 tornado had destroyed or extensively damaged more than 130 homes. This small town along the Illinois-Kentucky border is also the place where six people lost their lives in the February 29th storm.
Our first responder was Orville Crawford, a safety and health expert of the Fairview Heights, Ill., Occupational Health and Safety Administration office, who arrived within 8 hours.
My first order of business was to check in with the Incident Commander on site to offer OSHA’s services assisting with safety and health concerns for workers and residents, and to conduct risk assessments. I also worked with the Safety Officer assigned to the incident command center.
One of the biggest challenges was educating people about the role of OSHA in disaster recovery. Often times people believe OSHA is there in an enforcement role, but our role is to help protect workers and volunteers from potential hazards caused by the storm. We want to minimize further stress and grief to the residents that could occur if workers, volunteers or residents are injured in recovery efforts.
Response and recovery work in tornado-impacted areas presents safety and health hazards that should be properly identified, evaluated, and controlled in a systematic manner. Some operations, such as utility restoration, cleaning up spills of hazardous materials, and search and rescue, should only be conducted by workers who have the proper training, equipment and experience.
As part of our role in disaster recovery, I and four other OSHA safety officers conducted safety briefs with volunteers and workers and handed-out OSHA fact sheets and quick cards with important safety information associated with the hazards of chainsaw safety, generators, tree trimming and personal protective equipment. We also worked with the city council on a flyer that included safety information, which was given to all residents.
After conducting damage assessments, we recommended the use of personal protective gear necessary for the types of recovery and clean-up efforts being conducted. For example, during our tour of the damage we noticed many chainsaw operators were not wearing protective chaps. Working with the Incident Commander, we were able to get chaps donated from local home improvement stores for use during the remainder of the recovery operations.
Other, specific hazards associated with working in the aftermath of tornados that we detailed in our safety sheets included:
- Hazardous driving conditions due to slippery and/or blocked roadways, slips and falls due to slippery walkways;
- Falling and flying objects such as tree limbs and utility poles;
- Sharp objects including nails and broken glass;
- Electrical hazards from downed power lines or downed objects in contact with power lines;
- Falls from heights;
- Burns from fires caused by energized power line contact or equipment failure;
- Exhaustion from working extended shifts and heat and dehydration.
Another important aspect was working with the local authorities for a contractor registration program, which helped to authenticate contractors and assure they were following proper safety and health procedures as well as good business practices.
We also made sure that crisis and stress management was not overlooked, especially for first responders who have been working long hours of disaster recovery. The Incident commander was able to get a stress debriefing scheduled for those first responders and others to help with coping with the emotional toll involved in recovery operations.
On Friday, March 1, another tornado hit the towns of Moscow and Bethel, Ohio. Within hours, OSHA also had personnel on the scene in those cities providing disaster relief services.
Editor’s Note: The author, Christine Petitti is a Safety and Health Manager with OSHA Region V, Chicago.