Earthquake Damage to Street

Earthquake Safety for the Workplace

crack in street

Earthquakes can cause significant damage to people and property. Photo: Flickr/Martin Luff

On August 24th, a magnitude-6.0 earthquake hit Napa Valley, Calif., injuring more than 100 people and causing as much as $1 billion in economic losses, according to The New York Times. This earthquake occurred in the middle of the night when the majority of area residents were in bed, but what would happen if an earthquake occurred in the middle of a busy workday? 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warns businesses that they need to have plans for before, during and after an earthquake occurs, especially if they are located in high-risk areas. Employers can check FEMA’s earthquake hazard maps to see what risk level they are dealing with, and then they should take concrete steps to prepare their workplaces. The best way to avoid costly damage and possible injuries from earthquakes is preparation.

Preparing Your Business for an Earthquake 

Businesses need to have plans in place to keep people safe and to prevent damage to the workplace. If an earthquake happens and a company isn’t prepared, continuing with operations can be very difficult. Structures, materials and products can all be put out of commission quickly during a seismic event. Let’s take a look at what business owners can do to protect their companies. 

Building & Property Preparations 

When we discuss most hazards in the workplace, we talk about ways to reduce those hazards using engineering controls. These controls change a machine or process so the hazard is inherently lessened. The same idea can apply to earthquakes hazards; if you make a building and its contents more resistant to earthquakes, the odds of people or property getting damaged will be smaller. There are two ways to prepare the workplace for an earthquake: structural changes and nonstructural changes. 

Structural Changes 

Old buildings often sustain the greatest amount of damage in an earthquake because they aren’t built to meet seismic building standards. It is possible to retrofit a building to make it more resistant to shaking, though, and doing so may be worthwhile. According to FEMA:

Businesses that use retrofitted buildings are more likely to survive damaging earthquakes and to sustain shorter business interruptions and fewer inventory losses.

It’s true that major structural changes can be costly, however, and some small businesses may not be financially able to alter a building significantly. When old buildings cannot be retrofitted, other measures should be considered to prevent as much damage as possible. 

Nonstructural Changes 

Many small actions can be taken to make nonstructural components of a building like shelves, inventory, desks and other equipment better prepared for withstanding an earthquake. These changes can make a substantial difference because during a seismic event, these objects can shift and fall, posing hazards to employees. 

Consider some of the following ideas for the office from FEMA’s QuakeSmart website:

  • Anchor filing cabinets and bookshelves to walls; use latches to secure drawers and straps to secure the contents of the shelves.
  • Install straps on computers and other expensive equipment to attach them to desks.
  • Use cable supports to reinforce ceiling fans.
  • Secure fragile items like picture frames to surfaces using museum wax or putty. 

The warehouse is another location where many items can fall. Some of these suggestions may be helpful:

  • Bolt shelves to the floor and if possible, anchor them to the ceiling.
  • Store heavier items on lower shelves.
  • Avoid using glass containers.
  • Place removable fences around goods to keep them from sliding.
  • Be especially careful when storing hazardous chemicals. Store chemicals by type so that incompatible chemicals that could react dangerously with each other won’t mix if their containers break.
  • Store extra inventory or supplies in original containers where they may be better packaged to prevent breaking. 

If you plan to start a project to make your workplace better prepared for earthquakes, try doing a walk-through to assess what items could fall, topple or break and see if you can fix some of these problems. 

Keeping People Safe 

In emergency situations, if people are unprepared, they’re more likely to get hurt. Employers should have plans in place for what to do during an earthquake, and employees should understand those plans so they can respond appropriately. 

In general, workers should know to “drop, cover and hold on.” Trying to move during an earthquake often leads to injury. An employee working at a desk should get underneath the desk, cover his or her head and wait for the shaking to stop. Workers in other parts of the facility should take shelter beneath something sturdy like a workbench or table if possible. When that isn’t possible, they should crouch and protect their heads. Workers should always try to move away from windows, light fixtures and anything else that could shatter.

Beyond training workers in the basics of what to do immediately when an earthquake begins, workplaces should also train employees in CPR, first aid, the use of fire extinguishers and anything else that could help them respond after the shaking stops. Others may be injured and in need of medical attention. Fires are also common after earthquakes when anything electrical breaks. 

Finally, businesses should have regular emergency drills for earthquakes if they are located in risky earthquake zones. Without practice, employees are more likely to forget what they are supposed to do. During these drills workers can get practice identifying locations in their work areas that would be good for taking shelter. They can also learn where the safe assembly area is where people should reconvene after the immediate danger has passed. This is the location where roll call would be taken after a real emergency to determine if anyone is missing.  

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Make an Earthquake Plan

You can’t predict when an earthquake will occur, but you can plan ahead. If businesses assess the ability of their operations to withstand an earthquake ahead of time, they can then take steps to reinforce the structure of buildings, secure valuables and dangerous equipment and ensure workers know exactly what to do if an earthquake actually occurs.

In the recent earthquake in Napa Valley, many businesses sustained significant amounts of damage. Many wineries, for example, spent the days after the earthquake cleaning up broken bottles, broken barrels and spilled wine, in addition to things like broken pipes and structural damage.

For other businesses in earthquake zones, finding ways to avoid that kind of damage with preventative measures will help get operations up and running more smoothly after a quake.