2020: Confronting wildfires, weather extremes & the pandemic

By October 8, 2020 No Comments

By Dave Johnson, Phylmar newsletter editor

EHS professionals are confronting a series of crises in 2020 that impact – and expand — their job responsibilities unlike anything encountered before:

  • COVID-19 has infected more than 7.4 million U.S. citizens, caused approximately 210,000 deaths, and forced at least 163,000 businesses to close their doors since March 1, with 60% of those operations permanently closed, according to the Yelp Economic Average. At least five million employees work from home for at least half of the time, according to Fundera financial services. The number of telecommuting employees has increased 173% since 2005.
  • Wildfires ravaging California consumed more than four million acres – an area larger than Connecticut — by early October, more than doubling the previous record for the most land burned in a single year in California. The fire season, which has smothered the U.S. west coast from Portland, Oregon to Santa Barbara, California in smoke and turned the sky an eerie orange, roared into life in August after thousands of lightning bolts struck parched forest and sparked more than 8,200 wildfires. Thirty-one people have been killed and more 8,400 buildings have been destroyed.
  • The Atlantic hurricane season is predicted to have as many as 25 named storms, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the most the agency has ever anticipated. By August, 13 named storms had already formed in the Atlantic, the most ever before September.
  • On August 10, a powerful windstorm known as a derecho, with winds exceeding 100 MPH winds in some places, left a path of destruction from eastern South Dakota to western Ohio in just 14 hours.

Welcome to the new norm

“This is the new reality, the new norm, for EHS professionals,” says Mark Katchen, CIH, managing principal of The Phylmar Group. Infectious disease pandemics and weather extremes create mass population exposure risks unlike typical, much more limited workplace exposure threats. There is one similarity: these exposures are unpredictable and inevitable.

“We don’t know when or where, but we know with 100% certainty that another deadly infection will strike,” reports an April, 2020, Harvard Business Review article. COVID-19 is the sixth widespread disease outbreak in this century, following SARS in 2003; MERS 2012 to present; Swine flu 2009-10; Ebola 2014-16; and Zika 2015-16. 

Preparing emergency response and business continuity plans is hampered by human nature. As soon as the crisis begins to fade, so too does the commitment to anticipate and plan for the next one. Humans cope with trauma by repressing its memory. The urge to forget COVID-19 and move on will be powerful. So too with wildfires, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wind storms, hail storms and other freakish weather. 

Risk assessments for large scope scenarios involving mandatory evacuation, blackouts, sheltering in place and shutdown will likely increase as an immediate knee-jerk reaction, but over time preparedness plans and drills and business recovery protocols often become “check a box” exercises lacking urgency, resources, technology and the support and involvement of all levels of an organization.

Culture counts

An organization’s culture goes a long way to determining the intensity of emergency planning, preparation, risk prioritization and training. The culture of an autonomous driving technology development company, for example, emphasizes treating all workers with respect and dignity, according to its Code of Conduct. This includes identifying, evaluating and controlling worker exposures to safety and health hazards – chemical, biological, physical and ergonomic stressors. Emergency response procedures include emergency reporting, worker notification and evacuation drills, fire detection and suppression equipment, exit facilities and recovery plans.

In September, the company purchased The Phylmar Academy’s course, “Protect Yourself: Wildfire Smoke Employee Training’ for 2,500 employees. ( The risk the company confronts: it operates a mock city to test its vehicles on more than 100 acres in the middle of California. The site lies between Fresno and San Jose, and approximately 160 miles from the Creek fire, which consumed more than 300,000 acres northeast of Fresno. The company’s large outdoor workforce needs to know the health effects from exposure to wildfire smoke; the ways to protect themselves and recognize symptoms of exposure; how to read and interpret the Air Quality Index; and the requirements of California’s emergency regulation, “Protection from Wildfire Smoke.” 

The exposure risk: wildfire smoke can make anyone sick. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and other materials. Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including: coughing, trouble breathing normally, shortness of breath, stinging eyes, irritated sinuses, fatigue, fast heartbeat, chest pain and headaches, according to the CDC. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions, older adults, children and pregnant women are more likely to get sick if they breathe in wildfire smoke.


Wake-up call

“COVID-19 is a form of a natural disaster,” says Phylmar’s Katchen, “and natural disasters of all types with their huge impact present an increasing challenge to EHS professionals. This is not lockout-tagout or an OSHA compliance issue. Disease outbreaks and weather extremes affect large swaths of people and force EHS professionals to work with communities, public health agencies, emergency services and ramp up emergency planning.”

2020 in all its extremes is a wake-up call. Some years will be less eventful than others in terms of exposures and risks to large populations, but the mindset regarding emergencies must be “when,” not “if.”


Numerous resources are available to professionals, including: 

Leave a Reply

By using this site you accept the terms of our Privacy Policy and acknowledge that this site uses Cookies to track user data. I Accept