After large parts of province were left devastated, senior manager at WorkSafeBC on the importance of emergency preparedness
Still reeling from major floods that have devastated large swathes of the province, B.C. residents are being warned of fresh rainfall that is set to affect thousands.
Maritime provinces have also seen heavy rainfall that is causing a lot of damage. So how can businesses and organizations in these provinces prepare to ensure the safety of their workers?
There’s no cookie-cutter template for handling floods, says Barry Nakahara, Senior Manager, Prevention Field Services, WorkSafeBC.
“Emergency preparedness requirements will differ, depending on the sector and types of work being done,” he says.
With floods, workers can be impacted in different stages – not just during flooding, but also after in the course of cleanup, recovery and rebuilding efforts.
Obviously, when floods happen the workers can be directly impacted in their workplace, or their work can be interrupted by the floods.
“It’s important to be prepared for these types of situations,” says Nakahara.
It is hard to offer a blanket statement on what exactly do to in the case of a flood, because there is such a wide variety of workplaces and diversity of work that takes place – not just in B.C. but in any province.
As well as occupation, geography is of course very important.
Due to the unprecedent nature of the B.C. floods, it is unclear whether employers in the province had given a lot of consideration to the full impacts of a flood.
“Workers were stranded, either on roads or highways, or in more remote workplaces where the floods prevented them from getting out,” says Nakahara.
Nakahara has also heard some concerns regarding unexpected impacts on mobile workers and those working in transient workplaces.
In fixed locations, most workplaces have a basic emergency response plan. However, remote workers face unique challenges in emergency preparedness if they are travelling for work or working in remote job sites in flood prone areas.
“Employers need to ask, ‘how well have the impacts of natural disasters been assessed for those workplaces?’” Says Nakahara. “Anticipation, risk mitigation, and preparation are key.
“It’s important to reflect on the needs of the lone worker and what risks they might encounter, ensure that there’s a check-in system to account for them, and ensure they can obtain assistance if needed, and have access to emergency provisions.”
Broadly, when it comes to emergency preparedness, Nakahara says: “Employers must anticipate, assess and tailor emergency response provisions based on the type of operation and the number of workers that may be affected. The other important part with any program is to continually re-evaluate and improve it.”
Nakahara also highlights the distressing nature of sudden disasters like flooding can exacerbate mental health issues among workers.
Psychological stressors are elevated significantly during times of uncertainty – not just among those working remotely but among all workers. When disasters occur, it puts an enormous burden on the workforce.
“This is certainly something employers should look out for,” he says.
The aftermath of the flood can be just as dangerous as the acute phase of the crisis.
“Water can cause extreme damage,” says Nakahara.
It’s not just the water, there are also other hazards that arise during floods such as infrastructure damage or electrical dangers.
“Accessing the workplace, trying to recover afflicted equipment and materials, and repairing the damage all have various risks—and in turn safety considerations,” says Nakahara.
Workplaces may have damaged equipment, including critical components that make equipment unsafe to operate, or even move. In turn, hazardous materials including chemical and biological agents (such as disturbed asbestos or sewage) may have been introduced that require professional removal.
In addition, Nakahara says that: “You’re putting workers into unique and unusual circumstances when you start cleaning up the mess, so you want to make sure you’re monitoring, supervising and adjusting as needed.”
Post-disaster cleanup and recovery requires learning new behaviours and means employers must be especially diligent in ensuring they’ve clearly communicated expectations around safety,” he says.
Nakahara says that some of the flood areas in B.C. were largely agriculture areas, where employers are faced with cleanup of dead livestock, introducing biological hazards, when decaying remains have been sitting for a week or more.
“As you move into cleanup mitigation, I want to stress the process of stepping back, anticipating what might have been damaged, and what new hazards might have been introduced,” says Nakahara. “Assessing and planning for those is the key to keeping workers safe. An employer’s role is to make sure the workforce is properly trained and clear on safety instructions, and to monitor the work closely.”
“Right now, in B.C. we’re also faced with mitigating some fairly significant damage to infrastructure,” he says.
Between wildfires over the summer and the current floods, B.C. has witnessed some of Canada’s most extreme natural disasters.
“This is something that we need to be more prepared for, it seems like these unusual natural disaster events are becoming more common,” says Barry Nakahara.
“After any disaster or emergency, all employers and workers should reflect back and see what they’ve learned, and then identify gaps in planning around emergency preparedness.”
Everyone can learn from what’s happened in B.C. this year, and use this as an opportunity to revisit and improve their own emergency response plans,” he says.