Robert Carpenter | Editor-in-Chief
In the underground infrastructure construction and rehabilitation markets, being prepared is something that is espoused by smart companies and organizations every day. It’s rare that any possible safety risk scenario on the construction site is not played out, examined and evaluated in a risk assessment context that reflects safety and damage prevention. Best practices are outlined and strongly advocated.
For the good contractors and organizations – the insightful ones, the caring ones – keeping their employees safe is embedded in all operations. Methods such as toolbox or tailgate talks, training, open forums, and listening and learning among co-workers, all are effective in creating safe working conditions. It’s also smart business; with escalating insurance factors, along with bonding costs and availability, having a safe, low-risk company and work environment is the best method for managing those costs. That same concept applies to manufacturers and service providers, as well. Risk is a constant.
But providing a low-risk and safe operation involves much more than just toolbox talks or trench shielding. It’s about knowing your operating environment and preparing for extraneous situations that can crop up quickly, such as health risks, road construction, or even managing extreme weather conditions at job sites or plants. And, as well-known underground industry manufacturer Vermeer Corporation experienced in July, risk also includes Mother
Nature in all her fury
At about 4 p.m. on July 19, an EF3 tornado came roaring through the Vermeer campus of seven manufacturing plants and related facilities. Ironically, the company was hosting close to 480 customers and dealer personnel onsite, along with a full complement of plant workers just starting their shifts. Thousands were at risk.
However, true to company founder Gary Vermeer’s foresight and commitment to safety, Vermeer was well-prepared for the unexpected – a major tornado.
Living in Iowa, summertime severe weather replete with tornados is unfortunately all-too common. For Vermeer, “this is unprecedented in our history,” said the company’s President of Industrial Solutions Doug Hundt.
The EF3-strength tornado destroyed Plants 5 and 6 with minor damage to other structures. Once management determined that, through the grace of God, the only human toll was seven minor injuries, plans were quickly crafted to bring the campus back to full functionality. There’s a very good chance that by late August/early September, full manufacturing will be restored.
“Ironically, one of the reasons that Gary Vermeer built individual plants versus one mega plant is the fact that he wanted redundancy in case there ever was a natural disaster or problem within one of the factories. That decision is playing out very well – the fact that we have redundant capacity,” Hundt stressed.
The other factor that probably saved lives was the preparedness of the area’s alert system. Vermeer had about a 25-minute warning that severe weather had the campus squarely in its crosshairs. As Vermeer’s emergency plans clicked instantly into place, they even had time to fetch several people from the demonstration grounds over a half-mile away.
Vermeer is located just outside of Pella, Iowa, a small town with a huge heart. Most of Vermeer’s workforce live in and around Pella and other nearby, small farming communities. They are well-versed in rolling up their sleeves and rebuilding.
“Honestly, the morale [at Vermeer] has been unbelievably strong,” Hundt observed. “Once we understood that we had no serious injuries, the spirit around rebuilding and getting back up to speed as quick as we can was like nothing I’ve seen in my 24 years here.
“If you could be here, you would see thousands of people working as hard as they can, intelligently presenting what we need to do – it’s been phenomenal.
“You think of all Vermeer’s support network, the community and even other manufacturers in the region, and all have stepped up offering their help in any way they can. It’s just an incredible testimony of the human spirit when we have a tough, tragic situation like this,” he said. “The energy is strong, the spirit is strong and the morale is strong.
“I think we’ll surprise people with how quickly we come out of this,” Hundt said.