Climate & Comp: Employees in Danger’s Path as Tornadoes Rip Across Country 

09 May, 2024 Liz Carey

                               

Portage, MI (WorkersCompensation.com) – As a round of severe storms crossed the country this week, employees scrambled for shelter.  

Employment attorneys say employers are caught in the cross-hairs when it comes to protecting employees during severe weather.  

In Portage, Mich., severe storms ripped off the roof and the front of a FedEx Ship Center, emergency management officials said. Kalamazoo Emergency Management told ABC News an estimated 50 employees were trapped inside the building due to downed power lines, but crews were able to clear the line and get everyone out safely. Two FedEx drivers were on their routes when the tornadoes tore through the area, officials said.  

"At that time I looked up and I was like, 'Things are not getting good, it's getting windy, the weather's getting really, really bad really, really quick,'" one driver told WZZM News. "So at that time it was more about seeking shelter for me and caring about myself." 

The other driver said he was able to get back to the facility about five minutes after the tornado passed.  

"I did come in through the storm, and the wind was howling, it was blowing against my truck. It was extremely loud," he said. 

FedEx corporate spokespeople said they were thankful there were no injuries.  

"Our thoughts are with those affected by the tornado in Portage, Michigan, and we are grateful there were no serious injuries resulting from the damage to our facility at 6701 Portage Road. We continue to assess the damage, and we are implementing contingency plans to lessen any potential impacts on service. Customers with questions about their shipments can check fedex.com for updates," Shannon Davis with FedEx Media Relations said in a statement. 

An employee at a barbershop in Portage said she was working when the tornado shattered the business’s front door.  

Amanda Miller, an employee at Jude’s Barbershop, said employees and customers ran for cover Tuesday evening as an estimated four tornadoes and four-inch hail hit the area.  

"We got a few, like, tornado warnings. But a client walked in about five minutes before the tornado hit, and so the other girl that I was working with was cutting his hair," Miller told news outlets. "And the door started to, like, slap in the wind a little bit. She went over to lock the door and then all of the front windows and front door kind of shattered. And like very quickly the roof was going missing, and walls are coming down." 

Kalamazoo County sheriff’s office officials said there were no serious injuries, but an estimated 16 to 20 people had been injured in the storm.  

In late April, some of the employees at a Lincoln, Neb., machine tool plant weren’t so lucky.  

On April 26, a confirmed EF3 tornado trapped some 70 employees inside the Garner Industries plant near Lincoln. Three people were injured when the building collapsed, Chief Lancaster County Deputy Ben Houchin said. The remaining employees were rescued unharmed.  

Houchin also confirmed that a semi-tractor trailer was overturned during the storm, and that the sheriff’s office also responded to a train derailment. Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad said no one was injured in the derailment.  

Scott McLain, CEO and president of Garner Industries, announced Monday that it was forced to lay off more than 60 employees citing the damage to the building.  

“We’ve worked hard to find a path to move forward,” McLain said in a press release. “These layoffs are necessary for us to stay in business. This is an extremely difficult situation. These people are like family.” 

The employees will be given compensation and health benefits, McLain said. The company has also organized community support, medical and mental health assistance and new employment recruiting opportunities.  

Managing employees in the midst of a severe weather event can be tricky, experts say.  

On average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1,253 tornadoes occur every year in the U.S. The National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) reports peak “tornado season” for the southern plains from May to early June, while hitting the northern Plains and upper Midwest in June or July.  

But tornadoes can happen anytime. In December of 2021, tornadoes struck the Mayfield Consumer Products, LLC candle factory in Graves County, Ky. Eight employees of the company died during the tornado outbreak that eventually crossed six states - tornado outbreak impacted six states — including Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.  

Employees of the candle factory have sued Mayfield saying their supervisors put them in harm’s way. The suit, filed in Graves Circuit Court on behalf of more than 100 employees accuses the company of refusing to let them "leave work before the tornado actually hit its place of business even though the Defendant had at least 3 hours' notice of the danger this tornado posed." 

Sam Hinh, with AXcet HR, said employers need to have a plan in place for when severe weather strikes.  

“Legally, while you can insist on employees staying within the safety of the designated shelter areas, compelling them to stay against their will crosses ethical and potentially legal boundaries,” he said in an April 29 blog post. “It's essential for employers to communicate the risks of exiting the premises during a tornado, directing employees to designated ‘shelter in place’ locations. Should an employee choose to disregard these directives, it may be treated as a disciplinary issue.” 

Hihn said employers should have a well-documented emergency action plan, and ensure that it is thoroughly communicated to all employees beforehand. If an employee refuses to comply with the emergency plan, he said, that could be considered employee misconduct and would be a defense against any liability.  


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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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