Tornadoes and Construction: Preparing Your Jobsite, Employees, and Machines
While not unique to North America, tornadoes happen way more frequently here than on any other continent in the world. According to the data, more than 1,000 tornadoes happen in the United States every year while reports of anywhere between 50 to 200 tornadoes take place in Canada. Not only do these tornadoes cause over $17 billion in damages each year in the United States and $2 billion in Canada, but they also result in death numbers anywhere between 50 to 130 people per year.
Tornado protection is not only important on the job site but also in how homes and buildings are designed and constructed. As such, awareness of weather conditions and where tornadoes are most likely to occur, as well as what precautions can be taken to reduce the number of deaths and have employees stay safe, is incredibly important. In this blog we will cover:
- Where and when tornadoes are most likely to occur
- How to prepare for tornadoes in construction
- Recognizing signs of a tornado
- Safety tips for tornadoes in construction
- Creating a tornado emergency response plan
- How heavy equipment can help clean up after tornadoes
Where and When Tornadoes Are Most Likely To Occur
While tornadoes are more frequent in North America than in any other continent in the world, there are very specific spots where they take place. This would be anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. However, the Great Plains, Midwest, and Mississippi Valley, as well as southern states like Florida are the most likely areas for tornadoes in the United States. In Canada, tornadoes are common across the prairies, in southern Ontario and Quebec, and on the east coast.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Louisiana all had 50 or more tornadoes in 2021. The most common time for these tornadoes to take place is between March and June, especially for violent ones, as temperature and climate conditions are conducive for them. In Canada, tornado season is considered to be between April and September with the most dangerous ones taking place in June and July.
Overall, tornadoes are most common in the spring season and least common in the winter. Tornadoes can therefore have a significant impact on construction projects. Not only can tornadoes have a significant impact on construction projects that are in progress, but they can also show if past construction projects were completed without proper preparation for tornadoes.
How to Prepare for Tornadoes in Construction
There are a few things you can do when it comes to preparation for tornadoes in construction, like creating an emergency plan, which we will get to later, and fortifying your homes. And while building tornado-proof homes is next to impossible, there are certain actions you can take to protect homes from these disasters both as a home builder and homeowner.
For the home builders, much of it comes down to the design of the house. This means creating a strong foundation that provides a continuous load and downward pressure, as well as being resistant to impacts and winds that tornadoes can create. In a lot of these high-impact areas, it can also be advised to create storm shelters or safe rooms in the case of an emergency, especially if basements are not possible.
To create a continuous load, a lot of that impact starts with the roof as it's the first part of the home that the wind damages. As tornadoes create pressure that lifts, and winds work to tear a house apart, the load and weight must travel from the roof first, down to the walls, with the last grounding force being the foundation. However, as I'm sure you're aware that having the foundation intact is great, a house without a roof is impossible to live in. That's why building a sturdy roof and making sure it's been nailed down correctly to the walls is incredibly important in protecting against tornadoes. Otherwise, the shingles and roof will lift off and act like a wing taking parts of the home with them.
Another way to protect homes against tornadoes is to build walls using insulated concrete forms (ICF). Not only is this type of concrete energy efficient and strong, but they are also made for disaster resistance and safety. According to some, they can protect from debris flying at over 100 mph which is what most tornado wind speeds reach, if not more.
On the topic of debris, on the job site, it's incredibly important to have the equipment you need to tie down any loose materials or tools you have lying around in the case of a tornado. This will help not only in keeping your employees safe from anything that might be caught up in the tornado but also in ensuring that you're able to protect materials from being lost or damaged. As a homeowner or landscaper in tornado-impacted regions, one of the best things you can do to reduce debris damage is trim back any branches or shrubs and make sure any external items are placed in sheds or secured locations.
Lastly, when it comes to protecting your heavy equipment, the main thing you want to do is lay down any boom lifts that could be impacted by the tornado. For all equipment, if you have time, you'll also want to hook the machinery through the load line to the base of a structure at its lowest and most secure point.
Recognizing Signs of Tornadoes
While tornadoes can be unpredictable and happen suddenly, there are some best practices in determining whether a tornado is about to occur. The first on the list is monitoring your local weather. This should be obvious but it can be hard to keep your ears glued to the radio or weather network at all times as in a lot of cases the storms when tornadoes occur usually are powerful to knock out electricity. As such, you should have a battery-powered radio on your job site listening to the weather channel at all times, especially if in rural areas with less phone service.
However, if you don't have access to a radio or weather network, there are a few signs in the sky that a tornado is likely to happen. This would include dark, greenish skies or clouds, hail without rain, roars and thunder, clouds of debris that have already been created, high winds, and a funnel cloud starting to appear.
While these signs are certainly helpful in determining whether or not you need to take immediate cover, having more time to make a decision and get everyone to safety will be vital. Knowing about the likelihood of tornadoes in your area, creating safety plans and emergency protocols, and listening to weather channels are more proactive ways to protect your employees and job site from tornadoes.
Safety Tips For Tornadoes in Construction
As mentioned before, having tools and materials properly tied down or stored during a potential tornado storm is incredibly important. Ways to do this would be to put tools and materials in a vehicle or container nearby. This will help to not have them lost or damaged by the storm and it will protect them from getting caught up in the high winds minimizing the risk of more potential debris.
However, since you won't always have time to quickly store things away in the case of an emergency, there are some other methods to protect tools and materials from the tornado. The first thing you should do if you see a tornado coming is head into a building and take cover. If that's not possible, as is likely the case on a lot of construction sites, the safest thing to do is find the lowest point on a job site, lie down on the ground face down, and cover the back of your head with your arms.
If you're wearing a thick jacket or have access to a blanket, you can also use that to cover your head. The primary thing you want to do is protect your vital organs from any debris that might be flying around and this is the safest way to do that. Also, try to make sure that you're not near any trees or large objects that could fall on you in this position.
Lastly, never seek refuge under a bridge, mobile home, or portable building. These are some of the most dangerous places to hide during a tornado as they're the most likely types of buildings and structures to be damaged or blown away by the wind.
Creating A Tornado Emergency Response Plan
At the end of the day, employers are responsible for the safety of their employees when on the job. This is especially true for construction companies who want to keep their laborers and contractors safe in extreme weather conditions. As such, it's up to you as a company leader, owner, or project manager to develop a tornado emergency response plan and communicate it with those working the job.
The emergency response plan should include places in the area to seek shelter in the case of a tornado, checklists of tasks to do depending on how much warning you have, roll calls after the fact to ensure no one is missing, and making sure any hazardous or dangerous materials have been moved or protected.
Here's a checklist of what to do if a tornado is about to take place near you on a construction project:
- Have a battery-operated radio that's tuned into the weather station at all times. Have extra batteries just in case.
- Create a list of everyone on-site every day. Update it should anyone leave or join and include all subcontractors as well.
- Determine an action plan to let all of your employees know of the imminent threat.
- Appoint a tornado-safe zone. Ideally, it would be a basement or a windowless room on the floor nearest the ground. If there is no safe zone nearby, you can tell your employees to drive to the nearest location wearing their seat belts.
- When deciding on a safe zone, make sure to stay away from doors, windows, or outside walls. Be as centered in the room as possible.
- If neither of the above is possible, instruct everyone on site to lay down on the ground with their arms over their head and a blanket over their arms.
- Create a post-tornado task force that will survey the land and materials for damages, as well as if there are any repairs that need to be made to the project before continuing.
- Warn employees that when returning to work stations they should be looking for damages, destroyed power lines, and take extra precautions. If there are any issues, report to their manager.
Cleaning Up Tornado Debris with Heavy Equipment
Whether it's on a job site or around a community, tornado cleanups are messy and often challenging. There are often reports of large trees blocking roads, large pieces of homes that need to be cleaned up, garbage that's been flung around town, and in the worst cases, pieces of debris that need to be removed to find missing people. Tornado cleanup really does take a community of volunteers.
One of the ways the construction industry can give back is by using construction equipment to help with the clean-up. There are many reports and cases of companies giving back to the community by donating heavy equipment in the case of natural disasters and it's amazing to see. With the power of excavators, skid steers and compact track loaders, dump trucks, and more, there are many types of equipment that can be rented and used in tornado relief and clean-up.
However, when picking equipment to use, it's important to know which attachments and power levels you will need. Every piece of heavy equipment has a specific function whether it's for building, hauling, demolition, or clean-up. When utilizing compact, man lifts, or earthmoving equipment in disaster relief, you want to have equipment that can haul large amounts of equipment, lift things with grappling hooks or claw-like attachments, and breakers to grind up any big pieces of debris.
As is often the case with demolition jobs, you won't be moving soft materials like dirt and clay that will easily fill up bucket attachments. You need to pick the right equipment for the job and if done correctly, renting construction equipment in the tornado clean-up process can speed things along.
With all of this in mind, we hope that you're able to prepare for any tornadoes that might impact your job in construction. By knowing where they're more likely to occur, you can determine the level of preparedness you need to take to building in tornado-risk zones, how to recognize signs that a tornado might be imminent, safety tips for when they do occur, how to develop an emergency response plan, and what you can do to make clean up more efficient. We hope that you are never in a situation where the tornado emergency plan is necessary, but it's always best to prepare for the worst-case scenario to be safe and reduce the risk of any severe damage to both people and property.