Emergency preparedness: A critical safety program component
You're at work and a fire alarm or other emergency warning device sounds. Do you know what to do? Where to go and the appropriate route to get there?
The guy who works next to you suddenly sustains a serious injury or has a medical emergency. Do you know what to do?
You are injured on the job or have a medical emergency. Do your co-workers know what to do?
If you answered no to any of these questions, you and those around you are in danger. Emergency management and action plans are necessary to protect workers from natural disasters—fire, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and winter storms; biological and chemical dangers; explosions; grave injuries and illness, civil disturbances; and other emergencies.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines emergency management as "the process of preparing for, mitigating, responding to, and recovering from an emergency."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that "each work site should have an emergency action plan that gives employees information necessary to evacuate the building or shelter-in-place in an emergency. Training in the plans should be given to the employees, and drills of the plan should be held regularly."
Emergency Action Plan Guidelines
According to OSHA, an emergency action plan (EAP) is a written document required by particular OSHA standards. The purpose of an EAP is to facilitate and organize employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies. The elements of the plan must include, but are not limited to:
- Evacuation procedures and emergency escape route assignments.
- Procedures to be followed by employees who remain to operate critical equipment before they evacuate.
- Procedures to account for all employees after an emergency evacuation has been completed.
- Rescue and medical duties for those employees who are to perform them.
- Means of reporting fires and other emergencies.
- Names or job titles of persons who can be contacted for further information or explanation of duties under the plan.
The company I work for, the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Intl.® (FMA), recently distributed its Safety Procedures Reminder. The document contains the names of the company's Safety Committee members and their areas of responsibility; the proper procedure for dealing with emergency injuries and illnesses; maps of storm shelter locations—both primary and alternate—and a map showing where each employee is to assemble outside the facility in case of fire.
Since I joined FMA, these reminders have been distributed annually and at other times throughout the year when procedures and personnel change. During this time, several events occurred that necessitated emergency action. The consequences of these events were minimized because FMA had a good plan in place, and because employees knew and executed the plan.
Natural disasters are nondiscriminating. From small to large businesses, one-level to multistory buildings, and everything in-between, every business is at risk in terms of natural disasters.
FMA occupies a three-story building in prime tornado country. The high school in nearby Belvidere, Ill., was destroyed by a tornado April 21, 1967, just as students were boarding buses for the afternoon trip home. Lives were lost, and the school was badly damaged. Four Illinois schools, including Belvidere, are on the top-10 list of the worst tornado-related disasters in schools.
Northern Illinois tornado watches and warnings typically begin in the spring and continue through the summer and sometimes into fall. FMA employees have been evacuated to designated shelters more than once. Each time the danger passed without incident.
When potential dangers don't materialize, there is a tendency to downplay repeated threats, as in the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Never ignore a warning. Be grateful that you've received a warning and take appropriate action every time.
Making a Case for Emergency Management
For an EAP to make a difference, it must have full management support and a commitment from the CEO to make emergency management part of the corporate culture.
FEMA offers suggestions to help you make the case for emergency management. When presenting your case, avoid dwelling on the negative effects of emergencies (fines, criminal prosecution) and instead emphasize the positive aspects of preparedness:
- It helps companies fulfill their moral responsibility to protect employees, the community, and the environment.
- It facilities compliance with regulatory requirements of federal, state, and local agencies.
- It enhances a company's ability to recover from financial losses, regulatory fines, loss of market share, damages to equipment or products, and business interruption.
- It reduces exposure to civil or criminal liability in the event of an incident.
- It enhances a company's image and credibility with employees, customers, suppliers, and the community.
- It may reduce your insurance premiums.
Establishing a Plan
FEMA and OSHA provide guidelines for establishing your EAP. FEMA lists a four-step planning process:
- Establish a planning team.
- Analyze capabilities and hazards.
- Develop the plan.
- Implement the plan.
Detailed procedures for accomplishing all of these steps are contained in the FEMA document Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry.
Implementing the plan requires training employees, holding drills, and plan-related exercises. If implementation sheds light on plan deficiencies or reveals other problems, revise the plan; convey the changes to employees; and repeat necessary training, drills, and exercises.
Don't let your EAP gather dust and become a plan on paper only. Employers and safety committee members, review the plan with employees on a regular basis and conduct practice emergencies. Employees, review your companies' plans. Ask questions about items that are unclear. If something is confusing to you, it's confusing to others.
Take your company's EAP seriously. Emergencies happen. Don't become a statistic on a top-10 disaster list.
NOTE: More information about emergency management standards and action plans can be found at www.osha.gov/SLTC/emergencypreparedness/general.html#Complianceand www.fema.gov/library/biz1.shtm.