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What Wildfire Season Means for Contractors Across the Country

PREVENT LOSS ON YOUR JOBSITE BY PLANNING AHEAD — BEFORE THE HEAT IS ON

BY CRAIG SIMONSON, NORTHWEST REGIONAL EXECUTIVE FOR SENTRY INSURANCE, AND
BRENT OLSON, VICE PRESIDENT ANCHOR INSURANCE & SURETY,
AN OREGON-COLUMBIA CHAPTER AGC MEMBER

Even under ideal conditions, construction sites present a clear risk to health and safety. While job-related injuries receive the most attention, environmental conditions also present a significant risk to the safety and success of projects everywhere.

According to a report from CNBC, government forecasters recently announced that nearly half of the continental U.S. is in a moderate to exceptional drought; the most significant since 2013. With temperatures rising in summer, conditions are only expected to worsen.

Whether your project is near a wildland-urban interface or miles away, hot, dry, windy conditions add an extra level of risk to your projects. The tips below will help you plan for forecasted conditions — covering everything from direct fire risks on your jobsite to air quality challenges in surrounding areas.

Together, these tips can help better protect your workers, equipment and projects this summer.

PRE-PROJECT PLANNING AND FIRE PREPAREDNESS

While some wildfires occur naturally, the National Park Service states that nearly 85% of fires are caused by human error. Between the potential human errors occurring outside of your jobsite and the risks posed by your own workers — like sparks and equipment malfunction — preparation is key. Use your jobsite’s location to assess any direct impact you may have:

• Within .5 mile of any forest/woodland or brush — Consider the potential for the effects of blowing embers.
• Within 350’ of forest — Consider the effects of radiant heat
• Within 100’ of forest — Consider the effects of direct flames

Even if your jobsite isn’t within close proximity to wooded areas, having an evacuation plan in place before any type of fire occurs can help avoid confusion and prevent injuries. OSHA recommends that a thorough evacuation plan include:

• Conditions that will activate the plan
• Chain of command
• Emergency functions and who will perform them
• Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits
• Procedures for accounting for personnel, customers and visitors
• Equipment for personnel
• Review — and practice — the plan with workers, and update accordingly as the project progresses

As last year proved, you should include a strategy for project delays in your plan. Even job sites far from fires are subject to effects, as smoke travels many miles from the source. When workers see and smell smoke, it’s important to assess the situation, determine the distance to the source fire and its potential impact on your workers’ health.

In 2020, smoke from unprecedented wildfires halted construction in many areas of the country — a precaution to protect workers from smoke inhalation and limited visibility. Being proactive means keeping personnel up to date on changing conditions and apprised and trained on the latest evacuation procedures.

UPDATING HOT WORK PERMITS

While wildfires and the resulting effects may be less prevalent in urban construction setting, fire preparedness should be considered for every single project site; particularly as hot, dry and windy conditions increase. Performing “hot work,” such as welding, grinding and torch cutting can produce sparks, open flames or high temperatures — all of which can heighten the risk of an on-site fire.

In these circumstances, particularly on sites that lack automatic sprinklers or fire alarms, maintaining a hot work permit is essential to protect your business. They keep teams educated about the hazards of such work, and what measures can be used to mitigate them. As you assess the systems in place for your hot work permit, plan for:

Removing combustibles. Safely store or dispose of aerosol cans, combustible liquids, wooden pallets, garbage receptacles, sawdust and other combustible items that can easily become fuel for a fire.

Identifying work areas. Examine locations where you or your fellow workers will perform hot work and set safety precautions to prevent fires.

Preparing for fires. Always plan ahead in case a fire does occur. Be sure you have: 1) Fire blankets or spark shields 2) Accessible portable fire extinguishers 3) An established fire watch plan, ensuring workers check for hot spots and smoldering fires following hot work

Updating and maintaining a hot work permit should remind everyone of their fire prevention responsibilities throughout the project. Communication during the hot and dry season helps ensure your project stays safe and isn’t delayed — or worse, destroyed — by fire.

PROTECTING YOUR EQUIPMENT

While worker safety should always be your top priority, damaged or irretrievable equipment is a significant cost for contractors during wildfire season, often causing project delays. Environmental concerns — including weather and wildfires — are often the weakest link in the supply chain. Such unavoidable disruptions to logistics may threaten your timeline as well as vehicles and equipment in transit to your construction site.

In addition to finding secure locations where high-value equipment is at a lower risk for destruction, damage, or theft, it may be time to review your insurance coverage. In many cases, the materials, tools, and equipment already on your project site may be covered by property or physical damage insurance. It’s also important to note that because of extreme wildfire activity over the last several years, some carriers may have wildfire exclusions now. This makes it even more imperative to carefully review your insurance program and take preparedness seriously.

However, if your construction business transports or stores equipment and tools, inland marine insurance, also known as contractor’s equipment insurance, can help restore or replace your items if they’re damaged, destroyed, or stolen.

While “inland marine insurance” sounds more relevant to naval shipping, this coverage is specifically for tools and equipment moving over land. In cases of wildfires, debris and safety concerns interrupt the transportation industry, including trucking and train routes. The longer your supplies sit in less secure locations during these interruptions, the more they’re at risk of damage or theft.

Inland marine insurance can cover a wide range of costly equipment and materials often excluded from standard property insurance. The coverages your business needs will depend on your unique operations, location and risks. The most important step here is talking with your insurer to make sure you’re fully covered going into summer.

RESPONDING DURING AND AFTER A WILDFIRE

In some cases, outside factors make fires inevitable, and the safest course of action is listening to local experts and following your emergency response plan. If a nearby wildfire threatens your area, or a fire occurs on your site, report it to your emergency response organizations, no matter the size. If local authorities or construction supervisors order an evacuation:

• Evacuate the site and the area
• Verify all employees, suppliers, or other individuals on site have been safely evacuated

If time permits, it may be possible to minimize damage and loss by taking action before evacuating:

• Remove combustible and flammable materials from around all structures
• Turn off natural and/or propane gas sources
• Use any available hoses to wet roofs, walls, and nearby brush or vegetation Back up and remove essential business records

It’s important to wait until local authorities or emergency responders notify you that it’s safe to return to your jobsite. Once you return, be sure to:

• Check your site for hot spots, embers, sparks, or other evidence of damage, including any water or other fire-related damage
• Stay clear of any hazardous area or conditions, including downed electrical or utility lines
• Repair any damaged electrical, water, sprinkler, or structural systems
• Test water supplies before using them

While wildfires are a serious and growing concern among construction sites across the country, reducing your risk of damage and loss is possible. By planning ahead for such emergencies with well-considered plans, processes and policies, you can effectively protect yourself, your employees, your project and your business.

The tips above will help you prepare for the summer ahead, but they shouldn’t replace the advice of your local experts. Prepare your plan now and talk with local officials to make sure you’re following the latest guidance in your area.

Craig Simonson is the northwest regional executive for Sentry Insurance. Brent Olson is vice president at Anchor Insurance & Surety, an Oregon-Columbia Chapter AGC member. Sentry and Anchor both provide insurance and risk management services to general contractors. You can reach Craig at Craig.Simonson@sentry.com and Brent at Bolson@anchorias.com.