4 Tips to Prepare Your Construction Site for Earthquakes
Causing over $4.4 billion in yearly damages in the U.S. alone, earthquakes are a significant problem, especially for those living along the West Coast. Earthquakes also present a much more specific and personal challenge for your construction or contracting business by putting your project, your equipment, and your employees at risk. Fortunately, there are many steps you can take before and during earthquakes to help avoid long-term damage to your business and keep yourself and your employees safe.
Primarily a concern in states and provinces such as California, Alaska, Nevada, and British Columbia, the U.S. and Canada combine to experience around 25,000 earthquakes per year. California is such a hotbed for tremors that National Geographic reports that they experience an earthquake every three minutes! Most of these quakes do not cause damage and often we can't even feel them, but each year there are bound to be sizeable tremors that pose a significant threat to the well-being of those in the area.
Here are some things you can do to minimize the devastating effects of an earthquake on your construction site:
- Create A Safety Plan
- Take "Normal" Precautions
- Know The Signs
- Get Through The Quake
1. Establish A Safety Plan
Earthquakes are chaotic and scary situations, especially for those who haven't previously experienced one. No matter the size of your business or the number of employees that you have, an earthquake response plan can help reduce panic and uncertainty in a stressful situation. These will need to be adapted to fit different job sites and can even change partway through a project.
When establishing a safety plan for earthquakes, some important things to consider are:
- What objects and structures are around that could pose a risk during a tremor?
- Are there any fuel or gas lines nearby?
- Where is the closest open area?
- Is there a place to store heavy equipment that is not in use?
- How will hazardous materials, gas, and liquids be stored safely?
After the initial response, it's also important to formulate a plan to ensure it's safe to return to the site. Some things to consider in this phase of planning are:
- How will you make sure the ground is safe for operating heavy machinery?
- What areas of the site need to be cleared before returning to work?
- Can you find a professional to do a safety check and OK the site?
- Are there any damages to the construction already performed that need to be fixed before moving on with the project?
As you plan, more issues will present themselves. You'll think of more questions that you may or may not have the answer to, and that's okay. Answering these questions will go a long way in helping you determine your work policies for earthquakes. So do your research and formulate a comprehensive safety plan. It'll be a massive help to you and your employees in times of crisis.
2. Take "Normal" Precautions
On any job site, there are basic safety precautions that should always be adhered to. In the event of an earthquake, having followed these guidelines becomes extremely important, and simply following some of these basic construction rules can have a profound impact on safety during tremors.
One such precaution that should always be taken has to do with parking heavy equipment. Any time you park your machine, you should lower any shovel, bucket, or dipper, set the parking brake, and shut off the engine. This might not seem like a big deal most of the time, but if you've parked the equipment on a slight incline, the absolute last thing you want when an earthquake hits is for it to start sliding down the hill towards you and your team.
Another important rule to follow is that before starting and operating the equipment, make sure nobody is too close. If you happen to be in your machine during a tremor you may not maintain full control, and keeping others at a safe distance is an easy way to make sure they aren't harmed if the equipment skids or moves in another unwanted way.
Finally, if you are working around heavy equipment when you are not the operator, always keep clear of the machine. Keep in mind where the equipment is and in which direction it's moving, so you can get out of the way if the operator loses control during the quake. Also important is to never ride on top of a truck that is loaded with any material that could shift and injure you, as this will be almost sure to happen if an earthquake strikes, big or small.
As is common in any workplace, as construction employees get more comfortable in their jobs, some basic precautions get ignored. These safety guidelines may often seem unimportant and tedious to follow, but they can be life savers in the event of an emergency occurring while on-site. As a site supervisor, continuously encourage your employees to follow the best practices you've likely had in place since day one, because not only will it help you stay safe in daily operations, but it will also make handling an earthquake a great deal easier.
3. Know The Signs
Although difficult to predict, earthquakes do occasionally come with warning signs. Being aware of the early tells of an earthquake can help you put your safety plan into action early and get to a safe place before a large tremor hits your job site.
One sign to remember is that smaller quakes can precede a large earthquake. These small tremors are called foreshocks, and can sometimes occur just seconds before a major quake arrives. Foreshocks are not always helpful when trying to predict a subsequent earthquake since many do not have foreshocks, but it is always best practice on the job site to initiate your safety plan if you feel even a small tremor.
About half of all major earthquakes have foreshocks, and normally a major quake will follow within three days of its preceding tremor. After experiencing a small tremor, proceed with your project over the next few days with increased caution and make sure your employees are aware of the safety plan so if there is a more significant quake in the next few days, you're well prepared.
Other signs of coming earthquakes may include the ground tilting (that should make it pretty obvious that there's at least something wrong), significant change to the water level in wells, and animals acting out of the ordinary.
Make sure you know the signs that an earthquake could be coming, and let your employees know that they should be on alert for them as well. That way, when the time comes, you'll be prepared to jump into action.
4. Get Through The Quake
You've done all you can do to prepare for the possibility of an earthquake, and now one finally hits, the only thing to do now is to get through it.
If your team is working inside, stay inside. Move away from glass, hanging objects, bookcases, or any large furniture that could fall. Follow the drop, cover, and hold steps suggested by the CDC.
First, drop down onto your hands and knees before the earthquake knocks you down. This position will protect you from falling but also allow you to move if necessary. Next, cover your head and neck underneath a sturdy table or desk. If one is not available, get down near an interior wall or piece of low-lying furniture you're sure won't fall on you. Last, hold on to your shelter until the quake is over. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the tremor shifts it around.
If you are working outside, stay outside. The greatest danger from falling debris is just outside doorways and close to the outer walls of buildings. Windows and facades are often the first parts of the structures to collapse. Move away from buildings, wires, fuel and gas lines, and any heavy equipment that may be around your job site.
Next, if you can, take your team to an open area that is away from trees and telephone poles. Once there, get low and stay low until the shaking stops. This means getting onto your hands and knees or laying down on your stomach, getting off your feet before the quake knocks you down. If you are unable to get to an open area, and there are still objects in the vicinity with the potential to fall, lay down on your stomach and cover your head and neck with your hands.
Do not stand in a doorway. They are not stronger than other parts of the building and they do not protect you from falling or flying objects, which cause most earthquake-related deaths.
Unlike other natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornados, there is no earthquake season. Tremors can occur at any time of the year, under any weather conditions, and at any time day or night. It is vitally important that your team is prepared to handle an earthquake all year round, especially if you live in a hotbed like California or Alaska. With a strong safety plan, normal construction precautions in place, and knowledge of the steps to predict and survive a tremor, your team will be set up for success if nature ever does strike your job site.