Tornado Safety Tips for the Workplace: How to Be Prepared

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It’s tornado season once again. And each year around this time, we get a sobering reminder of how powerful, destructive, and deadly tornadoes can be.

To help you prepare, we’ve pulled together a bunch of tornado-related resources for you in this article. From a safety-perspective, this may well be one of the better tornado-related articles you’ll read this year.

But to top it off, we’ve thrown in some more tornado-related information, including videos of the largest tornado ever filmed, a classic movie clip featuring a famous tornado, and an interesting factoid about tornadoes and the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Aaron Presley.

Dive on in if we’ve piqued your curiosity.

If this article on tornadoes seems too serious for you, check our alternate humorous article on Sharknado Safety Training (or just keep that in mind for later).


Tornado Safety Statistics: How Many Tornadoes Occur and When Do Tornadoes Happen?

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory at NOAA, about 1,200 tornadoes hit the US every year.

They define tornado season this way:

“The peak “tornado season” for the Southern Plains is during May into early June. On the Gulf coast, it is earlier during the spring. In the northern plains and upper Midwest, tornado season is in June or July. But, remember, tornadoes can happen at any time of year. Tornadoes can also happen at any time of day or night, but most tornadoes occur between 4–9 p.m.”

So, depending on where you live, you may be facing heightened tornado risks right now. That said, it pays to do some research and be prepared. We’ve pulled together some tornado safety facts, tips, and links to tornado safety information sources for you below. Hope you find them helpful.

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How Many U.S. States Experience Tornado Watches?

According to NOAA, “43 states within the continental United States have come under a tornado watch” since 2003 (source). So, if you live in the United States, there’s a good chance that your state does get tornadoes.

Tornado Safety Terms: Tornado Watches and Tornado Warnings

It’s good to know some tornado safety alert terms.

In particular, to know what a tornado watch is and a tornado warning is. So here are some definitions from NOAA’s Tornado FAQ page.

Tornado Watch: “tornado watch defines a cluster of counties where tornadoes and other kinds of severe weather are possible in the next several hours. It does not mean tornadoes are imminent, just that you need to be alert, and to be prepared to go to safe shelter if tornadoes do happen or a warning is issued. This is the time to turn on local TV or radio, turn on and set the alarm switch on your weather radio, make sure you have ready access to safe shelter, and make your friends and family aware of the potential for tornadoes in the area. 

Tornado Warning: “A tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted, or that Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm circulation which can spawn a tornado. When a tornado warning is issued for your town or county, take immediate safety precautions.”

Tornado Safety Tips

What should I look for? How do I know a tornado is coming?

Although there’s no single sign that a tornado is coming, indicators that a tornado is coming your way include clouds that are dark and/or greenish; wall cloud; large hail; a funnel cloud; and roaring noise.

Of course, radio and television stations are good places to learn about these too, and the Internet and cell phones are increasingly supporting alerts as well (read down to the bottom of this article for more about that).

How can I plan and prepare at work for tornado season?

OSHA’s Tornado Preparedness and Response website suggests a four-phase process: planning, equipping, training, and exercise. We’ll give you the highlights of what they suggest below.

Tornado Safety Planning

First and foremost, identify a tornado shelter. Underground areas like basements and cellars are the best for this. If you don’t have an underground area, try to:

  • Find a small, interior room (like a bathroom) on the lowest floor possible. It’s critical to stay low.
  • Try to find rooms with reinforced walls made of concrete, brick, or block. Try to find rooms with no windows and a solid roof above.
  • Get away from exterior walls, windows, and doors.
  • Stay in the center of the room. Stay away from corners, which debris collects.
  • Avoid rooms like auditoriums, lunch rooms, and gyms with large, flat roofs overhead.

Next, you’ll want to set up an accountability system. Here’s what to consider:

Make sure you’ve got a way to know who’s in the building at all times (so you can be sure they’re in a shelter when they need to be).

Have an alarm system to warn workers. Make sure workers know what the alarms mean, test the alarms regularly to know they work. Identify workers with disabilities, such as impaired hearing, who will need additional and/or alternative notifications.

Assign specific duties to specific employees in advance of any emergency. Train these people to perform these tasks and give them checklists or guides to use in the event of a tornado. Have alternates identified and trained in case the regular person isn’t at work on that day.

In the event of a tornado, account for all employees, contractors, visitors, vendors, and customers when they get to the shelter. Have a prepared list and take a head count.

Finally, a note from OSHA about emergency action plans:

“Some businesses are required to have an Emergency Action Plan meeting the requirements under 29 CFR 1910.38, seeEvacuation Plans and Procedures eTool for more information. Though Emergency Action Plans primarily involve evacuations, emergency planning for tornadoes involve identifying safe places of refuge for workers to go to in the event of tornadoes.”

Since OSHA brought up an emergency action plan, check out the Emergency Action Plan e-learning course from Convergence Training, below.

 Tornado Safety Supply Kits

You’ll want an emergency supply kit in your emergency shelter.

Ready.gov, a government website, offers a good list of things to have in your emergency supply kit.

Tornado Safety Training and Exercises

Make sure all employees know what to do and where to go in the case of an emergency, including a tornado. Hold periodic tests in which employees go to the emergency shelter as if there were a real tornado emergency. Observe what went well, what went poorly, and what can be improved during your tests, and continually improve your procedures. Safer is always better.

Tornado Safety Myths

NOAA’s been kind enough to assemble and debunk a number of myths about tornadoes and tornado safety. Click that link you just passed to read the full thing, or just check our summary below.

Get under a bridge or overpass for shelter during a tornado.

No, don’t do this. In fact, bridges and overpasses may direct more wind and more debris at you if you’re under them. Or worse, the tornado could cause a bridge or overpass to collapse and fall on you, which sounds unpleasant.

NOAA’s advice to drivers who see a tornado coming their way? Drive the other way, or get out and into a building, or if you’re stuck get out and lay down somewhere low.

Tornadoes avoid big cities.

Not true, my friend. First, let’s make it clear that tornadoes DO hit big cities, and you can ask friends in Forth Worth, Dallas, Atlanta, and St. Louis if you need to back up that.

Now, it IS true that tornadoes hit less-populated area more than they hit cities. But that’s just because there aren’t as many big cities in the path of tornadoes–especially in what’s known as “tornado alley.” It’s NOT because a tornado senses a big city and steers clear, looking for the nearest dairy farm and rural trailer park.

Tornadoes can’t cross hills, rivers, or other geographic features.

Also not true! There’s no evidence that tornadoes can’t cross a hill, mountain, river, or river valley. As NOAA puts it, “Valleys and mountains do not appear to offer any significant protection once a tornado develops and its track becomes established.

You should open the windows of your house  before a tornado hits.

Nope. NOAA says this is “useless” and points out that if a tornado DOES hit your house, it will probably break the windows anyway. What they also say, though, is that this is a waste of precious time you should be using to get into a safe location. Stay away from windows and get to a low, safe place where you’re less likely to be struck with flying glass and/or other debris.

You can always see a tornado before it strikes.

Hey, we’re sure your senses are acute, but trust us–you can get hit by a tornado you didn’t know was coming. It may not have a visible funnel; it may be hidden in dark rain clouds and heavy rainfall; it may come at night; it may be so big you don’t even know what it is (kind of reminds me of this clip from Jaws). In fact, NOAA notes that there have been several reports of tornadoes that were nearly one mile wide. Wow!

If you see a tornado and it’s not coming right at you, you’re safe.

No, no, no, our good friend. First, you may have misjudged the direction of the tornado-this happens. Second, it may change directions–this also happens. And third, the tornado could throw debris hundreds of yards from the funnel directly at you.

So, do yourself a favor and take cover if you see a tornado. Don’t try to be a bystander and get a good view.

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Other Handy Tornado Safety and Tornado Preparedness Websites

Here are some websites you’ll find helpful for tornado safety.

Tornado Safety Warnings for Cell Phones and Radio

NOAA now offers wireless emergency alerts (WEA) that will send text messages to your cell phone in the event of an emergency such as a tornado. And of course NOAA Weather Radio still works, for old-schoolers like myself.

Twitter, Facebook, and Tornado Safety Tips and Alerts

If Twitter can help topple governments (and it can), surely it can make us at least a tiny bit safer from tornadoes. NOAA’s set up a spring safety Twitter #hashtag for tornado safety (and other stuff, like floods, thunderstorms, and more). What’s the hashtag, you ask? Here you are: #SpringSafetyPrep. 

You can also follow the National Weather Service on Twitter and Facebook.

Videos Having Something to Do With Tornadoes and Tornado Safety

Because we all like videos, right?

Video of (Supposedly) the Largest (or Widest) Tornado Ever

I didn’t fact-check this one but the video’s impressive. The posters of the video claim this was a 2.6-mile wide video that touched down near El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013. The tornado’s Wikipedia page backs up the claims.

The Most Famous Tornado in Movies

I’d guess it’s the tornado that took our innocent friend Dorothy to Oz. That first scene in Oz should scare you straight about tornadoes and get you taking tornado safety seriously, no?

Tornadoes and Elvis Presley

Finally, a little tornado-related trivia for you. Did you know that in 1936 a massive tornado outbreak swept through the American south, causing horrible devastation and killing many, yet sparing the one-year old Elvis Aron Presley, who lived in Tupelo, Mississippi, where the storms were at their worse? It’s a fact.

Don’t leave without downloading our free Job Hazard Analysis Guide, too.

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Job Hazard Analysis Guide

Learn how to perform a job hazard analysis on the job with our free step-by-step guide.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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