Just as every organization is different, so too is every workplace emergency. From fires to floods, from toxic gas releases to chemical spills, from disease outbreaks to active shooter events, there’s no such thing as a “typical” environmental health and safety emergency or disaster.
But that doesn’t mean dangerous incidents are entirely unpreventable or unresolvable. An organization with a systematized, comprehensive emergency response plan can effectively minimize risks and save lives before, during, and after any emergency. We’re talking about the difference between an inevitable incident and its escalation into something much worse.
So, no, an emergency or disaster is never typical—but you can make expecting the unexpected and taking swift action ordinary, everyday behaviors in the course of doing business. Do so and you’ll not only protect your workforce, but also avoid trouble with your insurance provider, plaintiffs’ attorneys, and regulators such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
To optimize your organization’s emergency response procedures, make sure your EHS team follows these steps:
1. Have a Plan and Write It Down
Effective emergency response starts far in advance of an actual workplace incident. Heed OSHA’s advice: “The best way is to prepare to respond to an emergency before it happens. Few people can think clearly and logically in a crisis, so it is important to do so in advance, when you have time to be thorough.”
Where to begin? OSHA recommends thinking through worst-case scenarios:
“Ask yourself what you would do if the worst happened. What if a fire broke out in your boiler room? Or a hurricane hit your building head-on? Or a train carrying hazardous waste derailed while passing your loading dock? Once you have identified potential emergencies, consider how they would affect you and your workers and how you would respond.”
From here, you can start developing your emergency action plan. Although not every employer is required by law to have a plan, it’s a good idea for virtually every organization and facility.
The more comprehensive your plan, the better. Consider every element and step of your emergency response process—alerts, evacuation routes, medical assistance, rescue operations, and more—as well as what roles (e.g. evacuation wardens) your employees fulfill.
According to OSHA, every plan should include, at minimum…
- “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 telephone numbers of individuals both within and outside your company to contact for additional information or explanation of duties and responsibilities under the emergency plan;
- Procedures for employees who remain to perform or shut down critical plant operations, operate fire extinguishers, or perform other essential services that cannot be shut down for every emergency alarm before evacuating; and
- Rescue and medical duties for any workers designated to perform them.”
For OSHA’s full guide on emergency response plans, click here.
2. Maintain Proper Equipment and Certified Devices
Without functional equipment, an emergency response plan is little more than a packet of papers. Make sure to maintain all necessary emergency tools, gear, devices, controls, and systems, including the following:
- personal protective equipment (e.g. goggles, respirators, helmets, gloves, etc.)
- medical and first aid equipment
- alarms (e.g. fire alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, etc.)
- fire suppression systems (e.g. sprinklers, extinguishers, etc.)
All equipment and devices must meet OSHA standards and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health certifications. For a searchable list of certified equipment, click here.
3. Create and Post Facility Evacuation Maps
Evacuations can prevent injuries and loss of life—or aggravate an already-chaotic situation. Make sure your workforce has the information they need to act quickly in a crisis. With clear, familiar evacuation maps, your workers can exit buildings in a speedy and orderly fashion, minimizing the chances of a stampede or blockage.
4. Train Your Workforce and Document Everything
Once again, training and documentation make a big difference in safety outcomes and EHS compliance. Train all employees on your organization’s emergency response procedures, including accident management, equipment handling, evacuation routes, and so forth. Keep training top-of-mind with periodic drills and refresher courses. Finally, be sure to maintain up-to-date and detailed training records, accident reports, and other related documentation—and keep all documents in an easily accessible location.