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Emergency Response: Plan and Prepare Now to Protect Workers and the Business

September is National Preparedness Month. Is the company ready if a disaster happens? Do employees know what to do in the event of a fire, tornado or hurricane? Has the company planned for what to do in the event of a terrorist attack or bombing?

Emergency situations can strike at any time. Planning and preparation are key to protecting employees and reducing the disruption to business operations. OSHA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommended that businesses plan for and consider how they and their workers will survive and recover in the event of an emergency or disaster. OSHA also requires employers to create a written emergency action plan (when certain conditions exist).

Emergency preparedness includes understanding and preparing for both natural and man-made events, ranging from fires to floods and power outages to technological threats and terrorism. Being prepared means knowing the hazards and risks that may be encountered and understanding what to do in different emergency situations. The first step in developing an emergency response program is to complete a comprehensive hazard and risk assessment for purposes of analyzing the possible hazards or emergencies that may be encountered and the risk level of each. Local emergency personnel can assist in identifying the hazards that are most applicable. As part of this assessment, the company should consider feasible protective measures that can be implemented to decrease the threat of and impact of emergency events on employees and business operations.

Once the assessment is completed, develop procedures on how employees should respond to the specific hazards or emergency events that could exist. Such procedures should not only consider immediate steps that can be taken to respond to the emergency (e.g., evacuation or shelter-in-place procedures), but also business continuity steps that could be taken to ensure the company is capable of conducting its essential mission and functions. Emergency action plans should include, at a minimum, steps for the following.

  • Means of reporting fires and other emergencies. Ensure that employees know how to report emergencies as soon as possible and how to contact internal or external emergency services immediately. Post emergency phone numbers at designated locations throughout the facility or work location and train employees on how to report emergencies and to whom.
  • Emergency notification. Ensure that all employees and visitors can be notified of the emergency via the use of a suitable alarm system that emits a distinctive signal or verbal message as soon as possible. Employees should be trained on how to activate the emergency notification system and what each emergency notification means.
  • Evacuation routes. Ensure that at least two exit routes are available for prompt evacuation of employees and other building occupants during an emergency. It is critical that emergency exits remain free and unobstructed at all times. For emergency evacuations, floor plans or workplace maps that clearly show the emergency escape routes and designated rally point locations should be posted throughout the worksite. Employees also should be trained on how to evacuate the worksite and where the designated rallying points are located.
  • Evacuation of individuals with special needs. Ensure that employees with disabilities or individuals in need of assistance during an evacuation have been identified and steps for providing the needed assistance have been developed.
  • Shelter-in-place procedures. Develop shelter-in-place procedures to address situations where it is best to stay inside to avoid any uncertainty or harmful agents outside (e.g., chemical spill, weather or biological hazard). Employees should be trained on why shelter-in-place may be the safest means of protection and their assigned sheltering location. Employees also should be trained on any additional steps that may need to be taken (e.g., donning a dust mask or sealing all windows, doors and vents with plastic sheeting and duct tape to prevent contaminated air from entering the rooms).
  • Headcount procedures. Develop headcount procedures to ensure that all workers are accounted for after an evacuation or during sheltering. Responsible individuals for performing the headcount should be identified and trained on how to contact employees in the event of an emergency and report missing individuals to local emergency personnel.
  • Rescue and medical duties. Develop rescue procedures (especially if workers perform high-risk or dangerous tasks) and assign and train employees to perform first-aid tasks. First-aid should be available within three to four minutes of an emergency event. If a worksite is more than three to four minutes from an infirmary, clinic or hospital, the employer should have at least one person onsite trained in first-aid. It is recommended that first-aid supplies be made available at all worksites regardless of the worksites’ proximity to a clinic or hospital.
  • Procedures for employees who will remain behind to perform critical operations. Develop detailed step-by-step procedures for employees who are tasked with remaining behind to perform critical operations. Critical operations employees should be trained on how to protect themselves, how to use the engineering or administrative controls and personal protective equipment available to keep them safe, and when they should evacuate or cease operations.
  • Roles and responsibilities of employees and management staff. Clearly define roles and responsibilities that should be taken in the event of an emergency event. Employers also should consider creating a team of individuals who are responsible for coordinating a response in the event an emergency occurs at the worksite and a team of individuals who will be responsible for performing the critical business functions of the organization in the event the normal business operations are disrupted or threatened with disruption due to an incident. Clearly mapping out the essential functions that need to be performed and how and where those operations can be performed in the event of a major disaster is an important planning step.
  • Effective emergency communication. Maintain emergency contact numbers on all employees and develop phone trees, emergency telephone hotlines, emergency notifications via text message or email or other means of effectively communicating with employees. A communication center other than the primary management offices should be established where operations can be performed when the primary management offices are damaged or otherwise affected by the emergency event.

The company also should consider keeping adequate emergency supplies, including a sufficient amount of non-perishable food and water, on hand. Employees should be notified of the emergency supplies that will be stored on location so that individuals may consider if there are other items they need to include for their own personal protection or comfort. In addition to emergency supplies, employees should be encouraged to maintain their own emergency kits, including such things as medication, a mini-flashlight, emergency whistle, water, snacks, etc.

As part of any effective emergency response program, review the processes and procedures for responding to an emergency with employees when initially put in place, annually and whenever the plan or employee responsibilities change. After an emergency event that required evacuation or shelter-in-place, conduct an emergency event review that addresses the effectiveness of the emergency response and identifies areas for improvement. Developing lessons learned can help improve the program and plan for the next potential disaster.

Both OSHA and FEMA have resources and ideas to help get started or improve emergency response procedures. Make September the month to review and update the emergency response procedures and train employees on their responsibilities.

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