Recent UK flooding has highlighted the steps companies need to take before, during and after disasters strike to protect their staff, property, reputation and avoid legal wrangles. Jon Herbert reports.
Britain’s continuing spate of very heavy rain storms is proof that devastating weather events can and do occur. Why, when, where and how often is now the subject of active research.
Whatever the scientific consensus, a new set of international, national and local challenges, responsibilities and decisions now face governments, their agencies and also business managers.
Companies have legal obligations to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees, visitors and others affected before, during and after flooding events.
They must also ensure post-flood business continuity. This means taking realistic precautions to guarantee the integrity of buildings, equipment, stocks and materials. Cleaning any pollution and restoring facilities to safe hygienic conditions has a price tag. Reputation also has a value.
Planning is the key.
However, good contingency planning needs both information and funding. Because money itself has a cost, decisions to invest, or not invest, based on the probability of an event occurring set against the potential damage caused, can be complex. Therefore, sound decision-making must be based on a well-informed risk assessment.
And the first level of risk may be determined by environmental phenomena half a world away.
It’s proving to be a small world
A principal cause of recent British rains — and snow storm Jonas on the US eastern seaboard — is thought to be the El Niño effect in the Pacific Ocean. On a roughly cyclical basis, El Niño results in warm mid-ocean surface water moving eastwards towards the American west coast. This affects the world’s jet-stream winds high in the atmosphere which cross the USA and Atlantic to deliver wet UK weather.
Geological data suggests that during the ice ages, El Niño events were rare; in a warming world, it is thought they could become more frequent and intense. Warmer energetic air holds more water.
However, no two El Niños are the same, making predictions difficult. The alternative cold water event is La Niña, which also has global weather impacts.
Deciding how often severe El Niño and La Niña events are likely to happen in the future is a risk calculation for governments and businesses. The official view is that no discernible long-term trend can yet be determined.
One government responsibility is strategic decision-making to build more resilience — flexible response options — into the UK’s national infrastructure. This includes creating robust transport links and protecting power stations and energy networks, coastlines and other essential amenities.
Flooding in recent years in Tewksbury, Somerset, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Scotland shows that vast swathes of Britain could be susceptible, including cities such as London, which also faces flooding dangers from rising sea levels and tidal surges during weather “lows” combined with high tides and adverse winds.
Clearly, defending the whole country against possible severe flooding is almost impossible financially. Again, a probability versus damage risk calculation has to be made.
Government, through its agencies and local authorities, also determines flood defence programmes. The mathematical models for 20, 50 or 100-year flood events are being reassessed following recent events; these are essentially another risk calculation to decide where finite financial and physical resources will be best deployed.
The Government is also taking practical steps, such as changing upland land management to retain more rain run-off for critical hours when rivers are swollen. Farmers may similarly be paid to alter farming methods to allow agricultural land to flood temporarily.
Another priority is to stem the building of houses and business premises on flood plains; thousands of new homes now stand on vulnerable ground. Tarmacking over urban environments intensifies rain run-off.
In some cases, such as parts of Cockermouth in Cumbria, barriers designed to stop a recurrence of 2009 town flooding may have hampered the release of flood water in December 2015.
At company level — a cunning plan
Statistics show that businesses are more likely to face floods than fire. In many cases, the cause is simply the fracturing of a nearby water main.
Following a record dry October, mild November, but ultra-soggy December and January, the watchword for many companies is now to assume that if worse can happen, it will.
Where businesses are located, the area’s flooding history, adjacent developments, existing and proposed flood prevention schemes, and immediate circumstances such as the type and condition of property, are all intrinsic to company risk planning.
It is also important to remember that in many instances, insurance policies have not covered all damage causes.
Where investments are made into on-site flood barriers, it is vitally important to train staff and rehearse barrier erection before flood water arrives, as some companies have found to their cost.
Essential checklists and advice is available from local government and official agencies. The Environment Agency Floodline service is a reliable source. The professional private sector can also help.
An employer has responsibilities to his or her staff under regulation 8 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. These specify that employers must establish procedures to be followed in “the event of serious and imminent danger to persons at work in his undertaking”.
In the case of new developments, flood risk assessments must be made with reference to Planning Policy Statement 25: Development and Flood Risk (PPS25).
In drawing up plans, companies should also make sure they liaise properly with rescue and community support services; improved communication was seen as a major benefit in the 2015 floods. Rescue organisations may be needed to help vacate property safely, prevent pollution damage and return property to safe post-event use.
Water often enters buildings through doors, windows and airbricks. Flood barriers can help here. However, it can also ingress as the result of an upwelling of groundwater pressure under floors, via toilets, sinks and overflowing sewers, plus cable ducts. Dry-proofing can help to prevent or hold back water before enters. Wet-proofing, and the use of flood resistant materials, can reduce adverse impacts if water does find its way in.
Electrical, water and wastewater services may be particularly important. IT services can be vital for some businesses. The contents of storage tanks may also leak to pollute wide areas with oil.
It is important to remember that damage severity depends on the speed, extent, depth and duration of flooding; a water depth of one metre can exert a pressure of half a tonne on a door for example. Hydrostatic pressure can force walls and floors to collapse. Accumulated sediments may cause stresses on floors and even roofs. The structural stability of buildings can be an issue.
Another consideration is that drying out can take months and even years, during which time mould and mildew may cause health problems. Wooden structures can rot; metal fittings may corrode, particularly if exposed to sea water. In addition, saturation can lead to plaster, drywall insulation and tile damage.
Mitigating steps include fitting sustainable drainage systems, physical barriers and non-return valves. As part of evacuation planning, individual staff members may be given specific roles which require proper training.
After the event
One reason why employers need to act with due diligence is because in cases where the measures put in place are subsequently seen to be unreasonable, or have not prevented flooding, they could be exposed to civil or criminal liability. Affordable insurance may then be beyond their reach. There could be regulatory compliance issues with stakeholders.
Once flooding has abated, employer responsibilities continue.
Before any building or structure is re-entered, it is important to have a qualified person, who may be a loss adjuster or civil engineer, assess whether any damage creates objective dangers to life and limb.
Even if buildings look safe, structural weaknesses, live electrical equipment, compromised gas mains, sharp hidden debris, raised manhole covers and contamination may pose threats.
Not only will buildings and contents have to be dried out thoroughly, the proper disinfection of property, disposal of waste material, damage estimation, repair work and insurance claims must be carried out competently.
Clean-up teams should wear personal protective equipment. Hazardous material must be removed appropriately. Gas and electrical services may need inspecting by skilled utility company personnel.
Where disinfection takes place, normal COSHH requirements must also be met.
The aim throughout is to estimate and minimise risks efficiently and cost-effectively, from root cause global phenomena to local workplace solutions.
Published by Croner-i on 24 February 2016