Safety and OSHA News

Weather Service now invited to table: Can safety pros accomplish that?

Hurricane Irma was a game-changer in tropical storm force. It was also a game-changer for the National Weather Service as an example of a strategy shift it started to pursue four years ago. Safety pros can learn from this strategy shift by the government agency that helps others prepare for weather disasters. 

An article in The Atlantic profiles just how the NWS shifted its strategy – and why it chose to do so.

First, the why:

On April 3 and 4, 1974, an outbreak of more than 140 tornadoes in the Midwest struck 13 states and killed more than 315 people. It was the largest single batch of tornadoes ever recorded up to that date.

Just over 37 years later, the NWS saw a repeat coming on April 27 and 28, 2011. It issued a warning on the morning of April 27. Tornadoes formed in 95% of cases when it issued a watch. Residents received tornado warnings an average of 24 minutes before twisters touched down. In all, 362 tornadoes formed.

Despite the accuracy of the forecasts, the same number of people died as in 1974: more than 320. A series of meetings at the NWS followed.

“We needed – with a sense of urgency – to move beyond forecast warnings and connect with decision makers,” Louis Uccellini, director of the NWS told The Atlantic.

There’s the parallel to the workplace safety world. Isn’t that an ultimate goal – to move beyond warnings and connect with decision makers to save lives?

A new guiding philosophy, “Building a Weather-Ready Nation,” sprang forth at the NWS in late 2011. Now the NWS mission would be about more than issuing warnings. It would be about taking responsibility for getting sound science to officials. Ambassadors were chosen to communicate the dangers of impending severe weather. It offered up its experts elsewhere in government.

The result? “We don’t invite ourselves in; we get invited in,” Uccellini said.

Florida declared a state of emergency almost a week before Irma’s landfall due in part to the NWS communication.

Sure, weather is science. But the NWS no longer issues public warnings that read like a science textbook. The language is plain and strong, such as a tornado “will be strong enough to flatten a house.”

So, here’s the equivalent challenge for safety pros:

  • Connect with your company’s decision makers before you have to issue warnings.
  • Offer safety expertise that becomes a regular part of business planning, and
  • Communicate with decision makers and all workers in plain language – there’s a difference between “this is an amputation hazard,” and “this can cut off an arm.”

Just as meteorology progressed in the 37 years between the two tornado outbreaks, the science of workplace safety has, too. As one federal climate official said, “All this technology doesn’t mean anything if you can’t convey it to people who need it to make decisions.”

How do you convey your safety message to decision makers at your company? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. This is a very interesting article. They make some very good points in the Atlantic article about the price of getting it wrong. I live to the south of Houston and you hear so many stories from people about the evacuation due to Hurricane Rita. People in their cars for 24 hours only to make it 30-40 miles due to traffic, I had a relative who was in a rehabilitation facility who had a seizure and died on a bus being evacuated. Rita was a miss and because of those experiences a lot of those people will not evacuate again.
    I also like the idea of Weather-Ambassadors. Ahead of Hurricane Irma you had Rush Limbaugh on the news claiming some sort of conspiracy to scare people. No matter what your thoughts are on the man, he does influence some people. In this case that influence could get people hurt. These “weather ambassadors” have to influence people to react in the interest of self preservation.

  2. Toby Nivens says:

    Getting your Operations folks to talk about the hazards has always been a challenge. I work in the oilfield and nobody wants to admit that anything can hurt, let alone kill you. The reality is that many things we do in our day to day activities will kill you if you do not follow the procedures. Getting my guys to do honest hazard analysis with plane language has benefited the entire work force. We frequently engage in joint observation/hazard hunts with our supervisors to bring the risk and the mitigation to the for front of our production meeting. This step is intentional and purposeful, not just happenstance. We proactively engage our people and discuss the concerns until there is a clear understanding of the real danger and what will be done to reduce or eliminate the identified hazard. I agree with the process the NWS has done. So many times in my career I have dealt with well meaning Foreman and Superintendents that have identified hazards but fall short when it comes to mitigating. I equate this to painting a rattlesnake orange but leaving it in the room…

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