Beware of Fire Ants During Hurricane Cleanup

While Texas, Florida and other states dry out from the trillions of gallons of water dumped by Hurricanes Harvey and Irene, there is much to be done and many hazards to watch out for when clearing trees and removing soggy remains from homes and offices.

While cleaning up outdoors, people should keep in mind that many animals are also displaced. These include 20 species of snakes (in Texas), alligators, deer and raccoons, according to the Washington Post.

What they may not be on the lookout for, however, are floating rafts of fire ants, which have a painful, itchy sting, Smithsonian reported. The ants, which send some 25,000 people to the hospital each year, can be found in a number of states, including Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and California. They have a way of coping with large amounts of water by clinging to each other and forming floating rafts that can contain 500,000 or more fire ants.
Photo: ScienceNews

These rafts are actually floating colonies protecting the queen, which is in the middle. They can survive for weeks until they find a dry surface—any dry surface.

According to Popular Science:

Normal ants bite and then spray acid on the new wound, but fire ants are much worse. They bite, hold on, and inject a venom containing 46 different proteins, including poisons that sometimes affect the nervous system. They also have a more brutal attack pattern than many social insects. If you knock over a beehive, not all the bees will come after you—most colonies have a few dedicated warriors to protect the clan. When fire ants are disturbed, however, they all attack. About one in every hundred people will have a full-body response to the stings, such as an allergic reaction or even hallucinations.

As Eric Chaney at the Weather Channel warns, the ants can remain a problem even after the floodwaters recede and it is easy to accidently happen upon them, hunkered down amidst debris piles. According to the Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project, “Laundry piles are convenient places that present lots of tunnels for the ants. They may be attracted to moisture or food residue or oils on soiled clothing. Often, reports of ants in laundry occur following a flood.”

Those venturing into flood waters are advised to wear rubber boots, cuffed gloves and protective rain gear to keep ants off their skin. Popular Science recommends spraying ant rafts with their kryptonite—soapy water—which can cause them to sink.

Post-Harvey Lessons For Chemical Plant Managers

One of the many hazards exposed by Hurricane Harvey occurred in Crosby, Texas, when the Arkema chemical plant suffered fires and small explosions on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Floodwaters caused the fires by penetrating the facility and shutting down the cooling systems designed to stabilize 500,000 pounds of highly flammable materials inside. This ultimately caused a mandatory evacuation for all residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant. Local news outlets reported that Arkema had no plan in place for six feet of flooding and its last risk assessment was submitted in 2013.

With Hurricane Irma being tracked at 175 miles per hour in the Caribbean, it is possible that chemical plants in the path of destruction—including Florida and the southeastern United States—may face a similar scenario. Regardless of the location of your plant, here are some tips that can help reduce potential business interruption and physical injury during a major natural disaster:
Update your risk assessment. Use Harvey as a catalyst to revisit your risk assessment, especially since new information has emerged about the potential for natural hazards or disasters that can trigger a chemical accident. As recently discussed, the best assessments do more than just feature a column of checked boxes to achieve an organization’s objectives and mitigate business interruption. “They prioritize top risks, assign risk ownership, and most critically, integrate risk management and accountability into front line business decision-making,” says Dean Simone, PWC’s U.S., Asia-Pacific, and Americas Cluster Risk Assurance Leader.

Submit the assessment to the EPA or other government-appointed body, like your state’s Commission on Environmental Quality. Your facility needs to be able to withstand significant damage to prevent further incidents and public harm. The feedback will hopefully provide some useful criticism to ensure public safety and business continuity.

According to ABC’s Houston affiliate:

In at least one of Arkema’s hazard mitigation plans filed with the federal government, plant officials acknowledged that flooding is a risk. The site sits in a FEMA “high-risk” floodplain that has flooded in the past, leading to a power failure. That time, the site only had six inches of water, a former plant worker said.

It was later revealed in an internal company timeline of events that Arkema did not move temperature-sensitive chemicals via refrigerated trucks and instead banked on its two backup systems, which failed. It seems certain that Arkema will have to consider at least six feet of floodwater when it revises its plan.

Institute an emergency plant management system. This may be included in your company’s risk assessment, and it is important that your employees also know the protocol when it comes to disaster prevention. This includes establishing the lines of authority and communication while on-site and during a catastrophe. OSHA provides guidance for chemical plant management in the event of a mass disaster.

Develop public-facing communications plans. Your communications team, led by an executive officer, should have advisory plans in place in anticipation of, during and following an emergency. The good news is that you don’t have to draft them from scratch. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers communications worksheets, templates and guides dedicated to water, sanitation and hygiene-related emergencies and outbreaks. You can customize these documents to reflect your organization’s capabilities and to alert nearby residents and businesses.

Be sure to issue advisories through all possible outlets, including social media. One thing Arkema did correctly was send press releases, incident statements and alerts via Twitter in addition to traditional outlets in order to keep as many people informed as possible.

Communicate with local authorities and emergency workers. All energy plants impact their local communities, surrounding areas and ecosystems. Your company’s hazard plans should be communicated to local fire and police departments and hospitals. This ensures that emergency workers know the potential dangers your plant faces in the event of a disaster and the steps you plan to take to mitigate them.

Eclipse Sheds Light On Western Wildfires

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Just before American news reporters could excitingly begin covering the total solar eclipse from Oregon on Monday morning, they had to acknowledge the wildfire smoke caught by their cameras. “Wildfire Threatening the View” was one brief TV headline leading into the eclipse’s coverage. It was threatening a little more than that.

At least 600 residents of Milli, Oregon were forced from their homes due to a mandatory evacuation starting on Aug. 18. The Milli fire began Aug. 15 and has since burned nearly 7,000 acres just nine miles west of Sisters, a town in the path of the total solar eclipse, according to Central Fire Info.

Thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime event, the growing hazard received some much-needed national attention.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there are currently 43 active wildfires burning in the U.S., mostly in western states. With a growing number of residences and businesses expanding into wildfire-prone areas, the risk for injury and death is high. Between civilian and firefighter casualties and injuries, property damage and a host of other concerns, it seems like the potential losses outweigh most other reasons to fight them head on.

In response to the continuing threat of wildfires, experts and authorities have presented solutions that should not tempt mother nature too much.

Light Your Own Or Let It Burn

Controlled or prescribed burns are the preemptive technique that can decrease the likelihood of serious, hotter fires. They are fires started by authorities in strategic locations that eliminate dead trees and other conditions wildfires thrive on, and are easily extinguishable.

This method has been successful in certain parts of the U.S., such as Ohio, when in 2015 it played a critical role in maintaining healthy landscapes. Prescribed burns do present their own set of liability risks, however, with smoke’s effect on air quality and people’s health chief among them. Those and other environmental reasons influenced the nearly entire suspension of the practice in British Columbia in 2003. But the method has found a resurgence among B.C.’s firefighting authorities. A former Parks Canada controlled burn coordinator recently said that “people do not understand the benefits of burning,” and warned that suppressing a forest’s natural cycle, which includes fire, creates the conditions for mega-fires.

In a similar vein, the Los Angeles Times recently suggested letting the fires burn out to avoid firefighter casualties, citing statistics showing there is little that authorities can do once a fire has spread.

The New York Times echoed those sentiments, noting that some scientists have suggested redirecting funds from firefighting into projects that fireproof homes, which could better ensure community safety.

A 2016 report published by CoreLogic revealed that 1.8 million homes across 13 Western states are at extreme or high risk of wildfire damage. Additionally, according to ISO Mitigation 60% of all new housing units in the U.S. have been built on the edges of forests since 1999. With this data in mind, it might be time to invoke strategies that anticipate and harness wildfires rather than relying on reactive ones.

Workplace Safety Tips for the Total Solar Eclipse

On August 21st, a total solar eclipse will be visible from North America for the first time in nearly 40 years. Many employers across the country will host viewing parties or may allow employees to take an extra break to observe the phenomenon, while those who employ outdoor workers can expect employees to have a front-row seat for the big event.

It is important to remember that such eclipses can expose workers to safety and worksite hazards, however. For example, outdoor workers should be sure to turn off any equipment or machinery before sun-gazing.

So what further information can employers pass on to reduce the risk of worksite and on-the-job injuries? NASA’s Total Solar Eclipse safety page suggests the following:

  • Never look directly at the sun.
  • If you are within the path of totality, remove your solar filter only when the moon completely covers the sun’s bright face and it suddenly gets quite dark. Experience totality, then, as soon as the bright sun begins to reappear, replace your solar viewer to look at the remaining partial phases.
  • Use eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers verified to be compliant with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for such products.
  • Always inspect your solar filter before use; if scratched or damaged, discard it. Read and follow any instructions printed on or packaged with the filter.
  • Do not look at the sun through a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device while using your eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewer — the concentrated solar rays will damage the filter and enter your eye(s), causing serious injury.
  • Keep normal eyeglasses on, if normally worn, and place eclipse glasses over them.

Check out the map below to see if your business is in the path of totality for the upcoming eclipse:

total solar eclipse map