Tornado Drill Procedures for Workplace Preparedness
Tornadoes are some of the deadliest disasters a business and its people can face. Learn how to protect your operations and employees today.
It’s a gloomy, windy, overcast day in your area. You park your car in your company’s parking lot and walk to the door. The winds around you blow so violently that your eyes tear up, so you squint hard and trudge toward the entrance. Through the constant whistle of fast-moving air, you hear what sounds like a freight train trundling by. But you’re certain there aren’t any nearby tracks.
After a few moments, you realize the noise isn’t coming from a train. It’s the telltale sound of an approaching tornado. You’re in danger and must act quickly to ensure your safety. And if your organization hasn’t invested time in preparing for these violent natural disasters, it’s unlikely that anyone will know how to react in time.
The sad truth is that tornadoes are some of the most common destructive events in the United States (and much of the rest of the world). Tornadoes bring indiscriminate, unpredictable destruction. They can cause millions of dollars of damage, claim lives, and disrupt entire regions with their force. NOAA’s Storm Events Database provides searchable tables that list the impacts of individual tornadoes. If you were to browse the entries, you’d see that both businesses and private individuals alike are susceptible to losing property and life in such a severe weather event. In 2022, damage to property by tornadoes amounted to almost half a billion dollars.
And it looks like we won’t be getting a break from them any time soon. According to NOAA’s January 2023 tornado report, the U.S. experienced more tornadoes that month than had been seen in January since 1999. Tornadoes are notoriously difficult to predict ahead of time, so only time will tell whether that rate continues throughout the year.
Regardless of the frequency of tornadoes, just a single twister can put your business and your people at serious risk. While you might not be able to predict tornadoes more than a day ahead, you can certainly prepare for them—so, if your company is staring down an incoming vortex, you’ll be ready to mitigate the damage.
Tornado emergency management is multifaceted, but one of the most important measures your company can take is to conduct tornado drills.
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To avoid harm from tornadoes, you have to synthesize a wide range of disciplines and strategies to make your workplace more resistant to damage, your people more aware of safe spaces, and your recovery efforts faster so your company can return to business as usual. A deep dive into the various aspects of tornado plans is beyond the scope of this post, but here’s a quick overview of what it takes to prepare your business for tornadoes—apart from running drills, of course:
You’ve doubtlessly seen the aftermath of a tornado touchdown in a residential or business area. The sheer power of the winds rends roofs from their foundations, throws beams and shattered glass and other debris through the air so fast that they can impale people or other structures, and decimates weak structures like mobile homes and basic warehouses.
Upgrading your building with tornado-proof materials and reinforcement can be expensive, but it won’t be nearly as expensive as paying to rebuild your workplace from scratch. Consider having your organization’s roof braced and strapped, making it less likely to tear off in high winds. You can also replace your windows with a shatter-resistant variety to reduce the damage of glass shrapnel which can easily kill an unprotected person. Of course, The relative costs to retrofit an existing building will likely be more than if you were to incorporate tornado-resistant features into a new construction.
While the above steps can increase tornado safety and reduce harm, the best single thing you can do to protect your people is to build an underground tornado safe place. Check out this detailed guide from FEMA on rules and recommendations for tornado/hurricane shelters that can instruct you on building your own reliable storm shelter.
Of course, this isn’t possible for some businesses due to cost or space restrictions. In a typical office building, often the safest place is an interior room with no windows on the lowest possible floor (underground if available), such as a bathroom. If you work in a temporary structure, such as a trailer on a construction site, staying there can prove more dangerous than being out in the open. In the case of temporary structures, leave that area immediately and seek permanent shelter. This shelter area should be identified long before a tornado approaches.
Does OSHA require tornado drills?
No. While OSHA does share many recommendations for preparing for tornadoes, they do not have any standards related to mandatory tornado drill training. However, OSHA standards are only the bare minimum that an employer should reach without running afoul of the law. We at AlertMedia believe that even if not required by law, tornado drilling can save lives and maintain business continuity if you find your business in a twister’s path.
Equipment and provisions
Unlike certain other emergencies like wildfire evacuations, an approaching tornado requires those in danger to seek shelter and hunker down until it passes. Your designated safe space needs the following equipment to weather the tornado’s life cycle and to listen for the all-clear signal.
- Non-perishable, ready-to-eat food
- Flashlights and batteries
- Battery/hand-operated radio
- Tents and tarps
- Work gloves
- First aid kit
- Sanitation supplies (hand sanitizer, toilet paper, trash bags, diapers if applicable)
Tornado Drill Procedure
It’s no secret that we’re big fans of emergency drills here at AlertMedia. From fire drills to shelter-in-place drills, they provide safe, controlled opportunities to test emergency preparedness plans and give employees time to familiarize themselves with your organization’s emergency plan, and they’re proven effective for all sorts of emergencies. Here are the five parts of a tornado drill and tips on running them.
Tornadoes are very unpredictable. When and where they form, the paths they take, and their force and duration are entirely unknown until after the fact. Yet the conditions that nurture tornadoes into existence are known to meteorologists, and tornado watches and warnings are almost always issued by local authorities to give residents and businesses a chance to prepare or evacuate. Assign someone at your company to keep their ear to the ground (or radio, or TV set, as it were) and regularly scan for emergent tornado warnings and watches from local authorities.
Local outdoor warning sirens, news stations, and national resources like NOAA Weather Radio or the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN are very reliable for tracking incoming severe weather.
For more personalized alerts, location-based weather alerts are an excellent way to track the kinds of events you care most about.
As part of the drill, this person should be tasked with sending out an emergency alert about the imaginary tornado just as they would during the real thing. To avoid undue panic, make sure everyone is aware that this is a drill.
2. Taking Shelter
As mentioned above, the only way to remain completely safe in a tornado is to enter a purpose-built hurricane/tornado shelter that can physically block the whirlwind of destruction that such events bring. Unfortunately, even many tornado-stricken areas, such as the region known as “tornado alley” in the U.S. southeast, do not have large numbers of tornado shelters, either public or private.
Unless you’re lucky enough to work for a company with the resources and foresight necessary to install a hardened concrete bunker, you’re going to have to think about where exactly you’ll seek shelter during a tornado.
Tornado safe spaces should be:
- Away from exterior walls
- Built from hard materials like concrete or brick
- On the lowest floor and not touching the roof
When taking shelter, employees should stay in a space away from the room’s corners as those areas tend to attract more flying debris, should any make its way into your safe room.
You probably rely on tools like email and internal messaging services to keep in touch with your people daily. But what happens when a tornado knocks out power and internet access?
Situations like these are where multi-channel emergency mass notification systems shine brightest. With these tools, you can reach out to your employees via voice call, text messages, email, social media, and more. This means that even if one or more of these avenues of communication are inoperable, it’s likely that at least one other is still online, increasing your chances of keeping in touch with everyone during a hectic emergency.
If you get a warning that a tornado is in your area, you shouldn’t have to worry about crafting messaging around the incident when you likely have other things to do—like getting yourself to safety. To solve this problem, create communication templates in advance that cover the announcement of a tornado, safe hiding spots and shelters, and an all-clear message to start the recovery process. Be sure to use these templated messages during your drill to increase realism and to prepare your employees for what to expect from you communication-wise.
Sample Tornado Warning Template:
[NAME OF CITY] is facing a potential tornado. As the storm progresses, we will provide updates on any tornado’s path and effects.
IMMEDIATELY move to a tornado safe space and stay there.
Do not attempt to leave shelter until you have been given the all-clear. If you need ANY assistance, respond directly to this message or call [NAME AND PHONE NUMBER].
TORNADO WARNING: [LOCATION] is under a severe tornado warning! Seek shelter immediately.
When running a tornado drill, there won’t be any debris to clean up, any live wiring to stay clear of, or collapsed structures to sift through. Instead, this “recovery” part of the drill should be a separate proceeding known as a tabletop exercise. In this mini-exercise, the exercise leader (possibly you) will present an imaginary recovery scenario to a group of participants. Perhaps a portion of your workplace was destroyed or there are employees that remain unaccounted for.
The participants will then talk out potential responses, ask questions, and work together to alleviate the “impact” of this imagined tornado.
While this exercise won’t simulate the recovery process, it will prime your employees to think critically about the recovery process and prepare them to assess real damage.
5. Review and iteration
The drill’s over, the hypothetical tornado has dissipated into the atmosphere, and everyone’s back to doing their usual work. Now it’s time to look back on the drill and review how it went.
This part of the exercise is known as the after-action review, AKA a “hot wash.” This process is meant to produce an after-action report that recounts the successes, shortcomings, and potential improvements for next time. This review should be a collaborative effort between safety leaders, facility managers, and employees from all parts of the business. Allow everyone to note what they thought was good, what they thought was bad, and what they would do differently if a tornado were to actually approach the workplace. You might also consider inviting public safety officials from the local emergency management agency so that they can share their expertise.
Use this report to adjust your tornado emergency response plans.
Learn a step-by-step framework for developing an after action report to ensure your organization is prepared for any emergency scenario.
Forecast: 100% Chance of Preparedness
Creating a tornado safety plan and committing time and resources to practice shows your employees that you truly care about their safety. Many organizations are content to claim that they “treat employees like family,” but to be frank, I wouldn’t trust some of my family members with my safety. If, on the other hand, a company creates a thoughtful safety plan and gives you the opportunity to experience it before disaster strikes, you know without a doubt that the company has your best interests at heart—especially if tornado readiness is just one part of comprehensive severe weather preparedness.
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