Tornado Warnings and OSHA

After an Amazon warehouse collapses in a tornado, killing six, OSHA decides to send tornado warning advice rather than a citation.

Extreme Weather

You may have noticed OSHA’s recent announcement concerning the Amazon warehouse collapse last December. The tragedy happened during a cataclysmic multi-state tornado outbreak that was extreme not only for its duration but also for its intensity. A tornado struck Amazon’s Edwardsville, Illinois warehouse at 8:35 PM on December 10. Six Amazon contractors were killed and another severely injured.

In the wake of the tragedy, OSHA’s inspection included management and private employee interviews, a review of the site’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP), and a review of all contractor safety and training records. No citation was issued.

The April 26, 2022 letter from OSHA to Amazon did identify three areas for improvement at the Edwardsville warehouse. These recommendations can be instructive for any employer managing similar facilities.

  • Employees and vendors must be trained in emergency procedures, including drills associated with the building layout, warning and alert methods, and severe weather shelter locations.
  • Severe weather emergency plans should have site-specific information identified in the written plan — including applicable exit routes, exit doors, and shelter-in-place guidance.
  • All warning devices should be identified, including their location, in the written plan and readily accessible.

No existing standard requires employers to have a severe weather emergency plan — though the agency strongly recommends such plans. There are also some key OSHA Emergency Preparedness and Response requirements that are sections of various existing industry standards. This information helps us understand how OSHA defines a workplace emergency and the agency’s emergency planning expectations for employers in multiple industries.

OSHA makes it clear in their letter to Amazon that they are not evoking their broad authority under Section 5(a)(1), the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to issue a citation. However, the mention of the clause indicates that OSHA won’t hesitate to use it in the future if necessary.

More Tornados?

The Washington Post published a human interest article about tornados — how they’re formed and where they happen — just a few days after the Amazon warehouse tragedy. It was surprising to learn that most of the earth’s tornadoes occur in the mid-latitudes and that the United States has the dubious distinction of being #1 in the world! More tornados happen here than anywhere else. Some of that status may be due to reporting inconsistencies, but there are still many tornados in the lower 48.

Also, the areas of highest risk for tornadoes have traditionally been east of the Rockies, in the Plains, Midwest, and South, but there is an expanding secondary threat area. Weather data tells us that the southeastern states — and northward through the Mid-Atlantic region — now have “increasing susceptibility to impacts from tornadoes.”

Are You Prepared?

In a weather emergency, do your employees know what to do? Is your emergency plan up to date and site-specific? Do your warning systems utilize the latest and best technology? Are all employees trained in emergency procedures? The Amazon warehouse case has brought national attention to emergency planning tools and techniques. All employers are encouraged to re-evaluate the policies and systems they have in place to keep employees safe in weather emergencies.

If you have any questions about your emergency plan and OSHA compliance, or if you have received a citation, don’t hesitate to call Orr & Reno for assistance.

About the Author: James Laboe

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