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August 09, 2013
Protecting your employees in an emergency

The unexpected seems commonplace these days. Are you ready?

Fires and explosions impact some 70,000 U.S. businesses and cause 200 employee fatalities each year. Approximately 1,200 tornadoes occur every year in the United States. And all states have the possibility of experiencing a moderate to severe earthquake. Then there are chemical spills, explosions, floods, and episodes of violence.

It’s tempting, but unwise, to believe it won’t happen to your business and your employees. While there are differing views about the best ways to prepare, experts agree that the organizations that sustain the least damage are those that are the most prepared.

September is National Preparedness Month. Take time this summer to review and refresh your programs to make sure you’re ready to respond and, if necessary, safely evacuate. Information and resources are widely available, including at the FEMA site, http://www.Ready.Gov/business, and at (from the left- hand menu, choose “Prepare Your Workplace”).

What OSHA says

OSHA defines a workplace emergency as “an unforeseen situation that threatens your employees, customers, or the public; disrupts or shuts down your operations; or causes physical or environmental damage.”

Emergencies can be natural or man-made and include:

  • Floods,
  • Hurricanes,
  • Tornadoes,
  • Fires,
  • Toxic gas releases,
  • Chemical spills,
  • Explosions,
  • Civil disturbances, and
  • Workplace violence resulting in bodily harm and trauma.

The heart of your response is an emergency action plan (EAP) that covers the actions employers and employees must take to ensure safety in a crisis. Although not all employers are required to have an EAP, OSHA encourages it and says creating one is not as daunting as it may seem.

Get your management team and employees involved in the process, as their support is critical to the plan’s adoption and success.

Include these elements

The EAP needs to be inclusive and reflect all the possible emergencies that could occur. It should be tailored to a particular site and based on a thorough hazard assessment as well as an understanding of the risks tied to a site’s location, weather patterns, etc.

OSHA says an EAP should include at least these elements:

  • A preferred method for reporting fires and other emergencies;
  • An evacuation policy and procedure;
  • Emergency escape procedures and route assignments, such as floor plans, workplace maps, and safe or refuge areas;
  • Names, titles, departments, and contact information for individuals within and outside the business for additional information or explanation of duties under the plan;
  • Procedures for employees who stay behind to perform or shut down critical operations, operate fire extinguishers, or other essential tasks; and
  • Rescue and medical duties for workers designated to perform them.

Other recommendations:

  • Identify an assembly location and procedures to account for all personnel after an evacuation.
  • Establish an alternative communications center.
  • Establish a secure on- or off-site location to store copies of original accounting records, legal documents, and emergency employee contact lists.
  • Maintain a current list of key personnel (in priority order) to notify in case of an emergency that occurs during off-duty hours.

Spread the word

A plan can be world-class, but it’s useless unless it is linked to a means of alerting employees to the problem. To that end:

  • Make sure alarms are distinctive and can be recognized by everyone.
  • Create an emergency/backup communications system like a public address system or portable radio unit as a way to communicate with employees and contact emergency responders.
  • Require that alarms be able to be heard, seen, or otherwise perceived by everyone in the workplace.

Planning for evacuation

According to OSHA, “a disorganized evacuation can result in confusion, injury, and property damage.” An evacuation plan should be part of your emergency plan and should include:

  • The conditions under which evacuation would be necessary.
  • A clear chain of command and designation of the individual authorized to order an evacuation or shutdown (and a backup). OSHA recommends an “evacuation warden” to help others in an evacuation and to account for employees.
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits. These should be posted where all can see them.
  • Procedures for assisting those with disabilities or who do not speak English.
  • Designation of which, if any, employees will continue or shut down critical operations during an evacuation. These people must be capable of recognizing when to abandon the operation and evacuate.
  • A system for accounting for personnel following an evacuation.

The plan should identify primary and secondary routes and exits. To the extent possible, these routes should be:

  • Clearly marked and well lit;
  • Wide enough to accommodate the number of evacuating personnel;
  • Unobstructed and clear of debris at all times; and
  • Unlikely to expose people evacuating to additional hazards.

Training and other concerns

OSHA recommends that businesses without a formal medical program establish ways to provide medical care and first aid. If an infirmary, clinic, or hospital is not close to the workplace, you’ll need to have internal first-aid capability. The goal is to begin treatment for a serious injury within 3 to 4 minutes of the incident. Also, provide employees with a written emergency medical procedure to minimize confusion during a crisis.

You’re required to train employees on the EAP, much as you would train them on any safety or health program. Educate employees about the types of emergencies that may occur and train them in the actions you want them to take.

The size of your workplace and workforce, processes in use, materials handled, and availability of on-site or outside resources will influence your training. Be sure all employees understand the EAP, including reporting procedures, alarm systems, evacuation plans, and shutdown procedures.

Train on any special hazards such as flammable materials, toxic chemicals, radioactive sources, or water-reactive substances. Be clear about who will be in charge during an emergency. This will minimize confusion and increase the chances of compliance with the plan.

Once the plan is in place and employees are trained, hold practice drills as often as necessary. Include outside resources such as police and fire departments. Assess each drill with the help of management and employee representatives to determine what worked and where you need improvement.

Several OSHA standards, including 29 CFR 1910.38(a), specifically address emergency planning requirements. OSHA emergency requirements can be found in various places within the agency’s general industry standards (29 CFR 1910). Some of these include:

  • Subpart E—Means of Egress,
  • Subpart H—Hazardous Materials,
  • Subpart I—Personal Protective Equipment,
  • Subpart J—General Environmental Controls,
  • Subpart K—Medical and First Aid,
  • Subpart L—Fire Protection,
  • Subpart R—Special Industrial, Electrical Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution, and
  • Subpart Z—Toxic and Hazardous Substances.

Important distinctions

It’s easy to nod your head in agreement as you read through a list of OSHA requirements for emergency action plans. But how do you go from good ideas to good execution?

Dick Sem, president of Sem Security Management, has worked for more than 4 decades in security and crisis planning. For the past dozen years, he has led a consulting firm based in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Sem, who says he has “seen it all,” explains why planning is so essential. “If something does happen, it is impactful, costly, and painful in ways that make all the preventive work and cost definitely worth it.” The most typical response Sem gets from clients who have gone through a crisis? “We never thought it would happen here.”

He emphasizes that where preventive measures (like training, policies, and drills) were taken, people and organizations emerged more safely from disasters.




According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a strong preparedness program is built on a foundation of management leadership, commitment, and financial support.

Business reasons for investing in preparedness are compelling:

  • Up to 40 percent of businesses affected by a natural or human-caused disaster never reopen.
  • Insurance is only a partial solution and does not cover all losses.
  • Many disasters may overwhelm the resources of even the largest public agencies. Alternatively, they may not be able to reach your facility in time.
  • Customers expect delivery of products or services on time. If there is a significant delay, they may choose a competitor.

Sem distinguishes between an emergency and a crisis. He describes an emergency as an event that can be managed, addressed at a facility level, and does not have a huge impact on people or the organization. An example is a small fire or easily contained spill. A crisis is an event that has a significant impact on people (like death and property destruction) and affects the organization’s reputation and ability to continue.

Sem also makes a distinction between accidental and purposeful events. Accidental events include fires, spills, chemical releases, medical emergencies, and natural disasters. Organizations are usually better prepared for these because they tend to be aware of likely hazards—for example, if they’re located in an area that experiences tornadoes or use hazardous chemicals at their site. Planning isn’t as good, adds Sem, around purposeful incidents. In these events (e.g., workplace violence, sabotage, bomb threats, contamination, or tampering), someone causes intentional harm.

“In general, these are more uncomfortable to talk about and more uncomfortable to drill and train for,” notes Sem. “It’s thornier for most organizations, so they hesitate to do it.”

4 key steps

Whatever type of unexpected situation you’re planning for, Sem advises that your plan include four key components.

Prevention includes everything from policy, procedures, and employee training to establishing a working relationship with local emergency responders. Though many employers reach out to firefighters, they neglect to connect with law enforcement.

Mitigation steps are those that help prevent a behavior or event from becoming more serious. For example, most incidents of workplace violence show some early warning signs that, if addressed, might reduce the impact or prevent the emergency.

Response is the work of protecting people while an event is unfolding. Unfortunately, Sem says, many businesses put more effort into response than they do into mitigation.

Recovery is everything after the fact—from debriefing to assisting those who were hurt, counseling, identifying lessons learned, rebuilding/repairing, getting back to business, and preventing a recurrence.

Does your plan measure up?

Sem says the most successful organizations view their plan as a living document that’s constantly being revised and updated as a result of changes to the organization, the neighborhood, etc. He also looks for a preparedness champion, possibly the site safety professional, “who rides and directs the plan.”

In order to succeed, an emergency plan must be embraced by employees. “I preach that the most powerful, least costly, and most neglected safety and security measure is ownership and engagement by all employees. Everyone should feel that they are a part of the safety/security team, but often that doesn’t happen.”

When an emergency hits, the impact is not limited to the managers and safety committee members most closely involved with the plan. Incidents don’t discriminate, which means that all employees must be knowledgeable and ready to take action.

“Murphy’s Law being what it is, something that’s going to happen will tend to happen at the worst possible time, so you have to depend on people knowing the right thing to do—not reaching for a binder or going online for instructions,” says Sem.

He recommends an emergency response team or floor monitors. These are employees with some advanced training who provide immediate direction and support as an event is unfolding. Short of that, he suggests extra training for supervisors and managers, including backups in case they are absent.

Sem also advises clients to establish an incident command structure. Individuals assigned to manage the emergency gather in a specified location with supplies, means of communication, and access to first responders, the media, etc. From here, they direct employees to take the steps on which they’ve trained and drilled.

Increasingly, planners are recommending the use of “plain talk” when communicating about an emergency. “The old way was to use obscure codes so as to not upset people,” says Sem. But inevitably, someone who should have known what “Call Mrs. Green” meant would not know, and the result was confusion or chaos.

The “stuff” of readiness

Protecting employees during an emergency takes more than a plan, training, and drills. It takes supplies. Bob Risk is the senior strategic safety, health, and preparedness manager for Staples.

Known primarily for traditional office products, Staples also sells many items businesses might need in an emergency, such as bottled water, first-aid supplies, fire extinguishers, and emergency kits that include a poncho, bandages, wipes, hand-warmers, vinyl gloves, and other essentials.

For the past 2 years, Staples has conducted a survey of businesses to assess their emergency preparedness. Consistent with last year’s results, the 2013 survey found significant discrepancies between safety perception and actual preparedness.

While only half of employees said their company communicates about the safety plan, three out of four believe their employer takes safety seriously. In emergency situations, about a quarter of employees said their companies communicate what to expect only at the last minute.

As for employers, less than half reported being prepared for severe emergencies, or that safety plans are regularly communicated. Nearly 40 percent said their small business does not have safety training or drills. Larger companies were more likely to have plans in place for emergencies.

The results, says Risk, “Bring to light what most of us have known all along about preparedness—it’s something people talk about when an emergency occurs, but then quickly forget about.” Americans tend to have tremendous sympathy for others going through a crisis, but that attention wanes when things return to normal, he says.

Encouraging signs

Risk sees encouraging signs that suggest employers are putting more attention and resources into emergency planning. “In the past, employees were the last to be taken care of, but now corporations are realizing that without the people who run these machines or do other tasks, they’re out of business.”

One large financial organization recently took action after realizing their preparations were inadequate. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a number of employees were required to shelter in place at the facility.

The problem was how to feed them, as restaurants and grocery stores were not operating. To avoid the problem in the future, the business purchased long-shelf-life, self-heating meals.

Other companies are ordering plywood, tarps, roofing materials, food, and water (from Staples and other suppliers). They make these available to employees whose homes are damaged in emergencies and who cannot get rebuilding materials.

“Companies have started to realize that the mental health of their employees has a direct correlation to productivity,” says Risk. “If someone is worrying about getting a roof on their home, they’re not going to be thinking about work.” One large corporation stockpiles such supplies in locations across the country for ready access as needed.

One mistake some businesses make is waiting until the last minute to order needed supplies. “Unless you have the products in your hand, you’re not really prepared,” suggests Risk.

“Many companies come to us and ask if we have what they need, then tell us they’ll call when they want them delivered.” But delivering products can be extraordinarily difficult when infrastructure is damaged, airline traffic is interrupted, roads and bridges are impassable, etc.

Easier to prepare

Risk echoes the thoughts of other experts when he says, “It’s much easier to prepare for an emergency than to have to explain why you didn’t.” Here’s a summary of emergency planning best practices:

  • Assess your workplace, processes, and location for hazards and possible emergencies.
  • Develop procedures and policies, including a detailed plan for responding, evacuating, sheltering, communicating, and meeting the needs of disabled personnel.
  • Address recovery and continuity of operations, including communications, transportation, and delivery of supplies.
  • Gather and assemble resources including personal protective equipment (PPE), duplicates of essential files, legal documents, and lists of employee relatives to be notified in case of an emergency.
  • Train workers and regularly drill on evacuation plans, alarm systems, reporting procedures, shutdown procedures, and special hazards like toxic or radioactive sources.
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