Tornado + skyscraper - windows
August 19, 2009 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Should I complain about not being told when our workplace is under a tornado warning?

I work in a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis. There was a tornado here today, and either the tornado itself or some high winds caused damage to a building about 4 blocks away. I'm not sure of the timing of the actual NWS issuing a warning, but I'm pretty annoyed that no siren ever went off inside of our building. Sirens went off outside but we can't hear them on the twelfth floor.

We got two emails today after the fact, one from the building manager (who does not work for my company) saying "feel free to use your own discretion for personal safety procedures" and that we should move to the center of the floor in case of severe weather. Her email ended by saying to let her know if we have any questions. Should I send her an email asking how they expect us to know there is severe weather when no siren went off? Or some less snarky version of that?

The second email was from our HR department saying they had met with the building engineer to discuss "communication concerns". Should I copy them if I email the building manager?

Sidenote: Someone went around our floor to clear it, but no one came into our room. I don't want to discourage them from doing that again, but how do I express my disappointment in us being missed?
posted by soelo to Work & Money (24 answers total)
Write a calm, polite, impersonal email and CC everybody on it. HR, your immediate manager, your manager's manager, the head of the company, etc. In this email, detail your concerns that there is insufficient tornado warning. Ask them what procedures are in place to alert you to the tornado warning, and what behaviours you should take should a warning be issued.

It could be that the company doesn't realise that the situation is the way it is.
posted by Solomon at 2:31 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would definitely not be snarky in an email -- one, because snarkiness can come off a thousand times worse in print, and two, because emails can always be forwarded to other people, so you have no control over who will ultimately see your words. That said, you could always express "concern" about the procedures.
posted by Tin Man at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2009

It sounds to me like your HR department is already aware of the problem, and are on top of it. What more do you expect to accomplish by sending another email?
posted by deadmessenger at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

Write a calm, polite, impersonal email and CC everybody on it

This always sounds like a sensible thing to do...but DON'T! Email HR and cc your manager, but leave everyone above your manager out of it. If your manager feels that it's appropriate to escalate the issue, then they will - but if you go over their heads with this - it will boomerang back to you with amazing fury. Been there, got the merit badge and scars to prove it.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:40 PM on August 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: What more do you expect to accomplish by sending another email?

I don't think I explained second email very well. It specifically said they met with him "after the All Clear". 'All Clear' in this case, is what they call out over the loudspeaker after a fire alarm or building evacuation. I heard nothing.

I asked my manager why there was no siren and he shrugged. I think I am further annoyed at the light tone these two emails took considering both how close it was and that there was no siren. I'm not sure if "communication concerns" = "no siren" or not. I want to make sure they know that there was no siren (and that is unacceptable to me), since the building manager is probably off premises, but I don't want to do it while I am so annoyed.
posted by soelo at 3:09 PM on August 19, 2009

The second email was from our HR department saying they had met with the building engineer to discuss "communication concerns".

So, HR is going to work on this issue, but you need to tell them to work on the issue? Maybe a note to HR volunteering to help organize disaster planning on your floor as they sort out the details with building management, but you're going to turn into That Guy if you send a complaint at this point.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:11 PM on August 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Does your business have customers? Maybe they don't want to panic them. I was once in a Barnes & Noble when a girl comes running in and up to a man near me, saying loudly, "Dad, dad! There was a tornado across the street and it took off the side of Kohl's!" No one at B&N told us there were any tornado sirens going off outside.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:12 PM on August 19, 2009

In Memphis we are subject to tornado warnings on a semi-regular basis. Every employer I have ever worked for here has a published severe weather procedure that specifically addresses this. After dealing with a situation last year where employees of another business very close to ours died because their supervisor did not take action, I agree that this is totally unacceptable. Check your manual, see if something already exists, voice your concerns to HR and volunteer to help write one.
posted by raisingsand at 3:22 PM on August 19, 2009

I'd give HR a week to follow up with specific information about what steps they've taken to address the "communication concerns" and if that information isn't forthcoming then I'd be making loud noises to whomever is legally responsible for compliance with occupational health and safety requirements.

A disaster/evacuation plan which doesn't work when there's a tornado warning is unlikely to work in the event of a fire. Moreover, your company's insurance company almost certainly requires compliance with OHS legislation and can refuse to pay any claims related to situations where the company is not compliant - that's serious legal exposure on the company's part and I'd probably be more inclined to use the liability argument to get your company's disaster/evacuation plans up to scratch than the "human concern" argument.

Just as a data point, does your company have regular fire/evacuation drills? If not, then someone's ass needs some serious kicking and any concerns about non-compliance with OHS requirements need to be documented and directed to the people able to enforce compliance. In my experience (my job entails a personal legal liability for OHS issues which exists independently of the legal liability of any company for whom I work), HR is often more concerned about compliance with employment contracts and anti-discrimination legislation than with duty of care issues and sometimes needs reminding that occupational health and safety is an issue they need to constantly monitor.
posted by Lolie at 3:45 PM on August 19, 2009

Was the someone who went around your floor from the building or your company?

It sounds like your company should review safety procedures with everyone. I think a polite email to HR and cc'ing your manager requesting this (as suggested above) is the best option. If you don't hear anything in response, then talking to other employees would make sense.

We are in a skyscraper in downtown Chicago. Fortunately my windows face west. Last year I cleared our office when it looked like the apocalypse was headed toward us. My thought was that it'll take 15 minutes out of our work day to go to the lobby, but it's better than having employees with heads full of glass.

We also have regular fire drills, and there is someone in the office in charge of clearing all rooms and closing doors. You all should know who these people are and have designated alternates in case of vacation.

Well known and well communicated safety plans in high rise buildings are very important. I wouldn't be surprised if someone else from your complained about not getting a warning from the building.

One other note -- in our building, the tenants, not the building, are required to install fire alarms that are audible for everyone in the office. So if that's the case with you, your company would be responsible for having an audible fire alarm.
posted by slo at 3:50 PM on August 19, 2009

Safety being generally a paramount concern, someone ought to at least check that they're compliant with OHS requirements.
posted by kldickson at 4:11 PM on August 19, 2009

Well, since you don't know exactly which "communication issues" HR is looking into, I see no harm in just adding your experience to the list. I'd start by thanking them for looking into it and tell them that you wanted to make sure that the issues you're concerned about also get addressed. Note that you heard no warning, nobody came into your department area and you were completely unaware of what procedure to take in the event that you had been made aware. I agree with others, it would be very nice and appropriate for you to volunteer to help out with any kind of company communication on this in the future. That way, you'll hopefully be in the loop when they do decide what went wrong.
posted by amanda at 4:18 PM on August 19, 2009

No one will be as concerned about your safety as you are. Get a weather alert radio and turn it on when there's a possibility of severe weather. They're inexpensive; be sure to get one with SAME technology (it'll say so on the box).

This suggestion in no way lessens your employer's responsibility. But employers don't always shoulder their responsibilities to their employees as they should. Get the weather alert radio for your own peace of mind.
posted by bryon at 4:51 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another +1 on a NOAA weather alert radio. They're like $4.99 at Wal-Mart. If you live in an area with severe weather and don't have one at home, work, etc: you should.
posted by SpecialK at 6:06 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's not your job to communicate these concerns with the building manager and in my experience businesses do not enjoy their employees taking it upon themselves to initiate this sort of communication. Take your concerns to appropriate people within the company (HR, perhaps something like an office manager).
posted by nanojath at 6:18 PM on August 19, 2009

Was the email from the building manager forwarded by your company's HR department? I'm trying to think another scenario under which the building manager would have email contact details for tenant employees. If HR did forward the email, then they've pretty much invited employees to communicate directly with the building manager - I'd just make sure that if you decide to do so you copy any emails to your HR department.

And if this wasn't a forward of an email which came via HR/management, who in the hell gave the building manager your email addresses and why?
posted by Lolie at 6:31 PM on August 19, 2009

NOAA publishes an RSS feed of weather alerts by county, so that plus an RSS-to-email service like peekfeed can keep you notified of weather concerns more or less in real time. If enough people in the office share your concern you just might be able to get HR to work with IT and setup a program to monitor this feed and send out email alerts to everyone, maybe even filtering out the minor alerts and only passing along tornado warnings for example.
posted by waxboy at 6:42 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whoops, it looks like the RSS feed is statewide, but could easily be filtered by location using the areaDesc field and by alert type using the title.
posted by waxboy at 6:53 PM on August 19, 2009

Someone went around our floor to clear it, but no one came into our room. I don't want to discourage them from doing that again, but how do I express my disappointment in us being missed?

Volunteer to do this yourself: "It is my understanding that a staff member came around our floor to clear it, but I was in Room X with several colleagues and this person did not reach us. This concerns me a great deal. Would it be possible for me to join the Safety/Emergency Team for Floor Y? I would like to help ensure that none of my colleagues is missed by a Safety/Emergency Team unable to reach all areas of our floor in time due to there not being enough members to get to all rooms."

(I mean, yes, there should be a siren and people should know to clear out when they hear it, but there should also be a team of several people searching the floor to make sure everyone has safely evacuated.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:02 PM on August 19, 2009

Minneapolis FD Fire Prevention Bureau
. . .Other functions of the bureau focus on plan review for specific types of life safety early warning systems. . .

Don't waste your time with HR or bldg mgmt and don't complain to co-workers. If you want results call it in to the FD and say you believe an audit of the buildings evacuation procedures is indicated as well as an examination of alarms, provide them with the email. "feel free to use your own discretion for personal safety procedures" is priceless and just the kind of useless advice that will get people killed when an incident happens in your building.
posted by mlis at 8:21 PM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

This storm and yet-to-be-confirmed-but-very-likely tornado came with little warning, if that's any consolation.

There were no severe storm watches or warnings in effect until the tornado was spotted. MPR reported today that meteorologists could not see the rain-wrapped tornado on radar, and that many sirens in the county didn't sound until after the fact.

If you're looking for a longer-term but less reliable hazardous weather forecast, check out the Storm Prediction Center.
posted by rigby51 at 9:16 PM on August 19, 2009

Definitely find out the tornado procedures for your building ahead of time. If there isn't a safety leader/committee you can go to, volunteer for this position yourself. As stated above, NOAA Weather Radio can help you be informed even if your building management is clueless (although I've never seen them as cheap as $4.99, usually more like 30-40). Or you can sign up to have warnings sent to you through text message or email. The Weather Channel does this, and there are also a bunch of private venders listed here that will provide that service.

Unfortunately, none of this would do any good if the NWS doesn't issue the warning soon enough, and like rigby51 said, it seems to be the case here. I was watching radar on one occasion and didn't see the signature until *after* my colleagues spotted a tornado develop out the office window. Doppler is a wonderful tool, but it isn't perfect, and sometimes storms get missed.
posted by weathergal at 10:10 PM on August 19, 2009

Don't waste your time with HR or bldg mgmt and don't complain to co-workers. If you want results call it in to the FD and say you believe an audit of the buildings evacuation procedures is indicated as well as an examination of alarms

This is excellent advice...but don't leave your name!!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:02 AM on August 20, 2009

Response by poster: Okay, thanks for all the responses. When I posted this question, I had no idea just how messed up this situation was. Apparently most of my company was evacuated into the stairwell, but not our room. There are other teams in rooms like ours and one team that was in a meeting and they were all left in their rooms with no warning. The whole thing was very haphazard and uncoordinated.

For those who suggest I volunteer to be on the safety team, I did that for about seven years here. We have hundreds of employees and only about ten people on the team, so I've put in my time. Even if I had been on the team yesterday, how would I have known anything was going down?

I know tornadoes don't give much warning, but my main concern is that if my city is sounding an alarm right outside our door, that alarm should be relayed to the building since we can't hear it inside. No one should have to run around telling people to hide. That is why we have building alarms.

FM radios barely work on this floor, so I don't know how well a weather radio would work. We aren't aloud to have our cell phones on or be on the Internet, and personal calls are discouraged. People obviously do it anyway or how would they have known about the warning?

I'm putting this question to my boss and his boss in a meeting tomorrow. If I don't get an answer, I will be talking to the FD or OSHA. Thanks again.
posted by soelo at 7:29 AM on August 20, 2009

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