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Being Prepared for an Emergency in the Workplace

Written by Staff Writer

Emergencies can happen at any time. The most effective way to handle a crisis situation is to prepare in advance by creating an Emergency Action Plan. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) even requires written Emergency Action Plans for many businesses, and specific businesses have additional regulations due to their part in the country's infrastructure or their handling of hazardous materials. Beyond that, there are many reasons for having a solid preparedness program.

Emergency Action Plan — Why Should You Have One?

The main reason to have an emergency action plan is to do as much as possible to keep your employees safe in case of disaster. The confusion of an emergency can make a bad situation worse and put lives at risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides more reasons an emergency action plan is important from a purely business perspective.

  • Up to 40% of businesses affected by a natural or human-caused disaster never reopen. Having procedures in place to deal with disasters can help your business survive this difficult experience.
  • Customers may not understand the disaster and its effects on your business. They'll still expect products or service on time. If there's a significant delay, they may take their business to a competitor.
  • Even if a disaster does slow or shut down your business, a robust emergency action plan has procedures in place to contact customers and stakeholders quickly to keep them up to date on what has happened. News travels fast and perceptions are often different from reality. Staying on top of the information stream reduces negative perception.
  • Insurance often only provides partial assistance. It does not cover all losses and does not bring back lost customers.
  • Public agencies cannot be expected to provide total relief either. Many disasters can overwhelm their resources, meaning aid may not be immediate even when it is available.
  • Many large businesses are now expecting their suppliers to have preparations in place for emergencies, trying to make sure their own business will not be hurt if something happens to another company on the supply chain. Without a plan in place, your business could be given to a competitor.

How to Get Started

The best time to handle an emergency is before it ever takes place. Before you create your emergency action plan, you'll need to analyze your business and see what potential hazards you face. These can vary depending on the type of business and your location. Some emergency action plans will cover problems dealing with hazardous materials on hand, some will need to deal with issues stemming from older buildings that were built to a lower-standard safety code, and some will need to have strategies in place to prepare for natural disasters more likely in certain areas, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes.

While many things will be different depending on the type of emergency you are preparing for — what you do during a tornado or earthquake will be much different than what you do during a fire or workplace violence incident, for example — some of the basic preparations will be similar for multiple problems. Always provide steps for getting people to safety, whether that means sheltering or evacuating them, and always have a clear and effective plan for communicating with everyone who could be affected.

Be sure to investigate not just what hazards you may face and how to stay safe during them, but also what effects they will have afterward. This should reveal such considerations as what lost income and increased expenses could be caused by your business being shut down for various amounts of time, the effect of lost customers, the delay of new business plans, and other effects of a disruption of service. Be as exact as possible in order to get a good idea of what costs you might accrue so you can most accurately plan for a disaster.

FEMA provides a Business Impact Analysis Worksheet you can distribute to management and any other employees you feel can contribute to your preparations. Download the worksheet here.

Create Your Emergency Action Plan

Once you have identified all of the possible threats you may face and the potential effects, you should come up with responses for the hazards. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • For emergency situations, have an individual in charge of following and getting others to follow the procedures you outline. For larger companies, you may need more than one, in separate departments or as backups, but in this case make sure the hierarchy is clearly laid out. Employees must know this individual is in charge and has authority during an emergency.
  • Ensure the methods for reporting fires and other emergencies are clear, whether it's dialing 911, calling an internal emergency number, pulling a manual fire alarm, or other procedure which may change depending on the type of emergency.
  • Create evacuation policies and paths that are clear and easy to follow.
  • Have procedures in place for employees who must remain during the beginning of an evacuation to take care of greater hazards. This includes employees who must use fire extinguishers, shut down gas lines and/or electrical systems, or safeguard hazardous materials to keep a bad situation from getting worse.
  • Be prepared for the loss of computer hardware, software, and information related to technological disruptions, and find ways to back up and recover it.
  • Note who is able to perform medical care, from first aid to CPR, and make sure they are in the proper positions to do so.
  • Provide clear communication during and immediately after any dangerous incident.

OSHA has several resources to help you prepare your emergency action plan.

Once Your Plan Is Complete

Your emergency action plan provides no benefit if it is simply filed away. It needs to be shared with the entire company for several reasons.

  • Every employee needs to know the plan so they can follow it in case of an emergency.
  • Company leadership needs to provide whatever resources are necessary to follow it.
  • It needs to be subject to review so improvements can be made on an ongoing basis.
  • Training needs to be provided. Just as physical exercise allows you to perform physical tasks with less effort, emergency procedure exercises
  • allow the workforce to follow the plan in an actual emergency quickly and efficiently at a time when every second counts.

Continue Monitoring and Improving

This training also tests the plan itself. The individual or committee in charge of emergency response should monitor the training to see where problems might be present that were not obvious during the planning phases.

For instance, fire alarms that were intended to alert everyone to danger might not be noticeable in some parts of the building with loud equipment running. Your emergency action plan should be reviewed often and updated accordingly as situations change.