Practical Tips for Emergency Planning

Emergency evacuation planning

Dangerous situations can arise quickly in the workplace. Knowing how to handle these situations requires adequate emergency planning, and this preparation shouldn’t be taken lightly. Your facility could encounter physical hazards like fires, chemical spills, dangerous weather or even workplace violence. We hear about workplace emergencies in the news on a daily basis. Two weeks ago in Turkey, for example, 301 workers died as a result of a mine explosion. Lack of emergency shelters, sufficient ventilation and well-functioning emergency equipment led to a devastating tragedy.

These types of tragedies are—at least to a certain extent—preventable, and as a safety manager you need to do your part to ensure your facility doesn’t run into these types of problems. A key part of safety management is having detailed emergency plans and testing them regularly. Let’s take a look at the important steps to keep in mind while formulating an emergency response plan, as well as some practical advice for implementing these plans in your workplace.

Create a Systematic Emergency Plan

Perhaps it goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway. An emergency plan needs to be just that: a systematic plan. To achieve this, you need to have procedures in place for auditing the potential hazards in your facility on a regular basis. Planning without assessing hazards systematically leads to overlooking possible emergencies.

That being said, you’ll need to figure out what types of emergencies are most likely to arise in your facility. Walk around and make a list of things that could potentially go wrong and escalate into emergencies. Plan for those, but then plan for the less likely scenarios as well. If your facility is in the manufacturing industry, perhaps a fire or explosion seems to you the most likely type of emergency. This may be true, and you should plan accordingly. Don’t neglect to plan for events like earthquakes, tornadoes or potential violence, too, though. Because those scenarios occur less frequently, employees will likely feel less certain about how to respond in those situations.

Once you have a list of all possible emergency situations that could occur in your facility, learn the regulations. Does OSHA require you to have a written plan documenting your emergency responses? Do you need to have a schedule for testing alarms? Are hazardous materials involved that would involve additional requirements like hazardous waste or hazardous communication rules? Find out and familiarize yourself with those regulations. It’s your job to make sure your emergency response plans are compliant.

To learn more about OSHA requirements relating to emergency planning, consult 29 CFR 1910.33-.39; 1910.119; 1910.120; 1910.165; and 1910.1200.

Plan for People

emergency exit, floor sign

Now let’s get into some of the details. One of the most basic parts of an emergency plan is making sure everyone in the facility has clear instructions. The person who first identifies an emergency needs to know how to sound an alarm and report the incident. This may involve pulling a fire alarm, making a phone call or quickly getting the attention of others in the area. Your emergency response team also needs to know what steps to take in each kind of emergency: should they administer first aid? Help remove people from the area? Put on PPE in the case of a chemical spill? They should know exactly what steps to take and in what order. Other employees not involved in the immediate emergency response should know their roles in the situation. In all likelihood, that will mean identifying the closest exit and assembling at a predetermined meeting point in a safe area outside the facility (though in some situations—such as those involving violence—they might need to shelter in place). Visitors should also know what to do in an emergency. This may sound challenging for you as a safety manager since you can’t train your visitors in evacuation procedures, but you can make instructions clear for visitors by posting highly visible evacuation signs throughout your workplace. The most important thing in any emergency is ensuring the safety of people, so mentally walk through each type of emergency and think of what everyone on site should do.

safety sign, emergency planning

Plan with the Authorities

If you work for a large company, your company may already have a relationship with local services like police, fire personnel and hospitals. New or smaller companies, however, may not have reached out to these key players in the past. Once you have your emergency plans in order, make sure to reach out to these groups and communicate any relevant details of your planned response. These responders may be critical to keeping your workers safe in an emergency, so don’t neglect this step.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

We’ve already mentioned the importance of assigning actions for your workers during emergency situations. Those plans will be of no use if you don’t properly communicate them, though. As a safety manager, you need to make sure you communicate clearly with your employees and with anyone else who may be involved in an emergency. Keeping clear, open communication about emergency response is one of the most important parts of any emergency plan; if people haven’t been told explicitly what to do, the odds of them doing what they need to do are slim. Conduct thorough emergency response training that lays out roles, specific instructions for the use of devices like fire extinguishers or procedures like CPR, evacuation routes and gathering points. (For some emergency plans, you may also need to train employees in chemical hazards and spill response.) Clear emergency signs and labels placed near relevant machinery, emergency response equipment (like fire extinguishers and eyewash stations), walkways and exits can also help reinforce important steps in your emergency plans. Additionally, make sure you always update employees when the plan—and their role in it—changes.

Test Emergency Plans Regularly

When was the last time you conducted a fire drill at your facility? How about a simulated chemical spill? These things may take a significant amount of time and employees may not be thrilled about them, but drills are a crucial part of emergency preparation. Drills provide supervisors and safety managers with important information about what works and what doesn’t. They will also increase the likelihood employees will perform the correct actions in the event of a real emergency. Consequently, you should take care to make sure drills are as lifelike as possible.

During these drills you may learn your emergency plans have some major issues—perhaps evacuation routes are unclear or assignments for employees in the immediate area of the emergency are confusing. You will likely uncover some smaller areas for improvement, too, and employees may be able to help pinpoint those gaps in the plan for you. For example, maybe the person in charge of contacting the company’s emergency response team was delayed because he or she couldn’t find the pertinent phone number. You can easily solve this issue by placing emergency phone numbers right next to the phone. You can also make the situation even clearer by posting signs indicating where the phone is located for any workers who may not know. Your emergency drill might also reveal that employees are rusty in other types of training. Maybe no one feels comfortable performing CPR or administering first aid. In this case, you could schedule further refresher training in those topics.

In addition to drills, keep in mind that testing emergency equipment is just as important as testing people. In the recent mining accident in Turkey, it’s possible better-functioning emergency equipment could have saved lives. The types of equipment you need to test obviously depend on your facility, but common types of equipment include PPE, emergency eyewash stations and fire equipment. Also test your alarms. You should have an alarm system in place whose sounds your employees recognize. This may involve different sounds for different kinds of emergencies, or perhaps this involves using a variety of prerecorded announcements on a public address system. In any case, test these methods of sounding the alarm. These alarms are often the first way you communicate with the majority of your employees during an emergency.

Make Emergency Preparedness an Ongoing Project

Having an emergency plan is great, but in a dynamic, ever-changing workplace, keeping that plan updated and in the forefront of employees’ minds is critical to its success. Discuss emergency precautions regularly at meetings, alert employees to updates and make sure posted procedures are clear and visible. If you do, everyone will be more confident and comfortable should a dangerous situation occur.

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