As residents of the Gulf Coast and Texas assess the damage of Hurricane Harvey (and another storm approaches Florida), Americans are reminded how easily a situation can escalate to a life-threatening emergency. For employers, planning for emergency situations long before they occur is not only a best practice — it could be a life saver.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has designated September as National Preparedness Month for families with the motto: "Disasters Don’t Plan Ahead. You Can." That's wise advice for employers as well as individuals.
It often happens without warning: a tornado alarm sounds, a fire breaks out, or there’s a chemical or toxic spill. Employers should have emergency and evacuation plans in place with staff ready to act, but few do. With the exception of mandatory emergency escape route signs that few employees even notice, most companies aren’t prepared. Some have a public address system to alert employees to imminent danger and the need to evacuate, for others, no such system is in place. Taking heed of FEMA’s warning, every company (and individual) should have an emergency plan and employees well versed in how to implement it to avoid injury or worse.
Companies should have strategic plans in place. A first step is to implement an emergency planning team: managers and staff who brainstorm worst-case-scenarios, identify possible hazards and plan to quickly and safely respond and evacuate.
Employers also should create a written policy complete with rollout awareness and training for all staff. Be sure to include:
Emergency notification systems
Whether it’s a public address system, phone or text messages, make sure everyone is included and can be notified at the same time. For employees with disabilities, or those who do not speak English, assure communication to them is effective as well. We’ve seen how colleges use text messaging to notify students if there is an active shooter on campus. For smaller companies, or those with employees in a variety of locations, setting up such an emergency system could be effective for many situations.
Chain of command
Who will notify office workers, for example, if there is a chemical spill in the plant? Designate people to make notifications and assure backup in the event they are absent or injured themselves.
In many cases, your local fire department has already required evacuation signage at your facility. Make sure your staff is knowledgeable about evacuation procedures. Your local fire department may assist in training employees how to evacuate safely in the event of fire. A plan will also be needed to assist workers with disabilities in the event of an evacuation.
For those who remain to perform the shut down of facility operations, safety procedures and protocols should be clearly outlined and staff thoroughly trained.
Fire extinguisher training is critical. Many local fire departments train employees how to use extinguishers correctly (yes, there is a correct way). Private companies also provide training for large groups of employees.
Account for personnel after an evacuation. Plan a designated area for employees to congregate, and take head counts to make sure everyone was able to get to safety. This could be critically important to fire or emergency personnel, directing them to staff who could still be in harm’s way. Try to account for non-staff members, such as customers or vendors, who might have been on premises at the time of the incident.
In case of a medical emergency
Medical emergencies are common in the workplace, and for some, a quick response could be life-saving. Experts believe that treatment of medical issues should begin within the first three to four minutes. After you’ve called 911, coworkers could be the first line of defense in an emergency.
- Have a fully stocked first-aid kit accessible to employees and make sure employees know where it’s located.
- CPR training is available through the Red Cross, your insurance provider or local safety council. Ask for volunteers or identify those employees who are already certified.
- Does your company have an AED (automated external defibrillator) device on premises? They can be costly, but life-saving. In addition to having one available, employees should be trained to use the device safely.
- Seizure training is available through local epilepsy foundations.
- Ensure that employees are able to both recognize the symptoms of a stroke and act quickly to minimize its long-term effects.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 2 million people are victims of violence in the workplace every year. Employees in retail and healthcare are particularly vulnerable, but it can happen anywhere. Working with your local police department can help you mitigate risk and plan for incidents that might occur.
Don't forget to safeguard your business operations. Don Schroeder, Partner with Foley & Lardner, suggests, “Whenever a natural disaster occurs, employers should review their overall business operations. Regardless of the size, every company should have some form of an emergency response plan in place. At a minimum, the company's IT infrastructure should have a detailed plan as well as back-up servers at other locations (or some form of cloud storage) to ensure that if hard copy documents are destroyed, the company will be able to replicate their records.”
Culture of safety
Trey Trimble, CTO at Transportation Safety Apparel reminds us of the bigger picture: “Developing a workplace safety program is more than simply providing safety training, materials and equipment to your employees. Cultivating a culture of workplace safety within your company is essential to moving closer to your goal of a zero incident workplace. A culture of safety doesn’t happen overnight, but with careful planning and analysis, a diligent eye for spotting accidents before they happen, and employee involvement, you can keep your work environment as accident-free as possible.”
An Emergency Planning Team is a good start in your preparedness plan. OSHA is also available to provide training and support in manufacturing and other sectors. Their comprehensive publication for employers, How to Plan for Workplace Emergencies and Evacuations outlines best practices on how to be ready for an emerging situation.
The American Red Cross could be also be an invaluable resource. Their American Red Cross Ready Rating is a web-based membership program designed to help businesses prepare for emergencies. The program is free and self-paced: employers complete a 123-point self-assessment of their preparedness level that reveals strengths and areas for improvement. The plan includes a commitment to continuous improvement of readiness scores to remind employers and staff that preparedness is not a one-time effort.
As critically important as it is to have a plan and policy in place, they are useless without training. Preparedness training should be done routinely, with fire drills held at least twice a year. Having staff trained and ready to respond could mean lives saved if an emergency occurs.