Severe Storms: How to Stay Safe at Work While Cleaning Up

Severe storms in Queensland can strike at any time, especially in the summer months, and they are often unpredictable. They can cause extensive property damage and lead to flash flooding. We, as Queenslanders, need to be prepared should a storm hit.

Residents are encouraged to clear out their gutters and drainpipes, trim trees and overhanging branches, and secure loose items to assist in minimising any damage that may be caused by severe storms. Although most thunderstorms do not reach the level of intensity needed to produce flash flooding, cyclones, or severe wind gusts; those that do, can cause widespread damage to homes, buildings, roads, infrastructure and often leave a trail of debris.

While most residents are able to clean up and repair minimal damage to their own properties, much of the damage caused by severe thunderstorms is cleaned-up by workers, especially in local council or state government areas.

In this article we take a look at how employers and workers involved in the recovery and repair effort after a storm can stay safe from injury.

Severe storms in Queensland

Queensland has seen several severe storms already this season and meteorologists predict more into the future. The severe weather outlook for 2017 has indicated a heightened severe weather season with an increased risk of damaging thunderstorms, rain, and cyclones.

Severe thunderstorms can occur at any time of the year in Queensland, however most strike between September and March when the supply of solar energy is greatest. 

Ergon Energy has released some interesting facts about storms, originally published by the Bureau of Meteorology:

  • South East Queensland (and the central New South Wales coast) experiences the most damaging individual storms anywhere in Australia;
  • On average, a severe thunderstorm can produce approximately 6,000 lightning strikes every minute;
  • Each year, on average, severe storms are responsible for more damage (as measured by insurance costs) than tropical cyclones, earthquakes, floods, or bushfires;
  • Storms can be deadly. In Australia, lightning accounts for five to ten deaths and more than 100 injuries annually. More deaths occur when strong winds cause tree limbs to fall, debris to become projectiles and small boats in open water to capsize;
  • Average lightning bolts carry a current of 10,000 to 30,000 amps – an average radiator draws ten amps.

When severe storms do strike and cause damage to public areas and infrastructure it is often the responsibility of council or government workers to clear the debris and act in the recovery process.

Staying safe during the clean up

Workers and employers involved in storm and flood recovery efforts must abide by their obligations under Queensland’s health and safety laws. Employers also have a duty under common law to keep their workers safe. Employers must, as far as it is reasonably practicable, minimise the risk of injury to their workers by eliminating or minimising hazards in the workplace.

When workers are involved in cleaning up after a storm, employers should consider the following steps to assist in worker safety:

  • Check that an electricity clearance has been given before attempting to use electrical items;
  • Identify any likely asbestos containing materials or dangerous chemicals;
  • Perform a risk assessment that:
    • Assesses what work needs to be done;
    • Identifies the order of the work to be done so that new risks are not introduced e.g. think about how workers will get access to the areas where the work is to be done, or the possibility of creating instability from removing things in the wrong order;
    • Considers what could go wrong during the clean-up and repair work;
    • Identifies what tools and equipment will be needed to perform the work safely;
  • Ensure the correct equipment is available to workers and in good working order;
  • Make sure that workers required to operate the equipment are trained sufficiently and ensure that supervision of less skilled workers is available;
  • Ensure workers are supplied with the correct personal protective equipment (e.g. rubber soled shoes, gloves, hats, sun protective and high visibility clothing etc.) and that it is worn correctly;
  • Ensure that appropriate first aid, clean drinking water and hand hygiene measures are available and there is access to medical treatment in the event of an injury occurring.

What about injuries?

If a worker is injured at work, or because of their work, they may be able to claim compensation. To be successful in an application for compensation with WorkCover Queensland or a relevant self-insurer, an injured worker will need to show that their injury arose out of, or in the course of, their employment and their employment is a significant contributing factor to their injury.

If their claim for compensation is accepted they will be entitled to receive statutory benefits for:

  • Medical and rehabilitation expenses;
  • Wages lost during any period they are incapacitated for work by reason of their injury;
  • A lump sum payment if they have suffered a degree of permanent impairment.

Workplace health and safety needs to be an employer’s first and foremost priority when sending workers out to clean up and repair the damage after a storm. Employers must abide by workplace health and safety laws and their obligations under common law to keep their workers safe at work.

By following these laws and abiding by their obligations at common law, employers and workers can help reduce the risk of injury when undertaking the clean-up and repair effort after a storm. Further information about storm safety can be found here.

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