Disasters happen, often without warning, and businesses must be prepared to deal with them. A natural or manmade catastrophe could threaten your employees or customers and shut down or interrupt your operations for an indeterminate period of time. While no one wants to think about a catastrophic event impacting their workplace, thinking about and planning for various disasters is the best way to be prepared to respond if they do happen.
In order to deal with workplace safety and catastrophe management, OSHA mandates that virtually all employers have an emergency action plan, which details the actions that employers and employees will take during a variety of emergency situations. Employers with multiple sites must have a dedicated plan for each location. For companies with more than 10 employees, the plan must be in writing and, at a minimum, it must include several elements, including a means for reporting fires and other emergencies, evacuation procedures and emergency escape route assignments, a system to account for all employees after an evacuation and a plan for securing rescue and medical assistance. Larger employers and companies in certain industries will require more complex emergency action plans.
Involve managers and staff members in developing a plan, which should begin with brainstorming what disasters could potentially impact your workplace. What if a fire tears through your offices, or an active shooter is threatening your employees? Besides fire and violence, potential disasters include hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, toxic gas releases, chemical spills, radiological accidents, explosions and civil disturbances. Depending on their industry and geographic location, companies have varying risk levels for different disasters. Employers that have hazardous substances onsite, for instance, face an increased risk of an emergency involving these materials. Once you have identified potential emergencies, consider how they would affect your workers and your workplace and how you would respond.
A fire is the most common type of emergency for which employers must prepare. The emergency action plan must detail how employees will be alerted to a fire or other emergency so that they can evacuate or take other actions. In addition to alarms, which should have both a sound and visual element, companies could use an emergency communications system such as a public address system or portable radio unit to provide additional information. Employees must also be trained in how to report emergencies, both to other employees and to fire, medical and rescue services.
The plan should detail conditions under which evacuating, sheltering in place, or another action would be necessary. Include in the plan a clear chain of command listing who is authorized to order the action and who is responsible for leading and coordinating the process. Evacuation procedures should include routes and exits, and they should be posted where they are easily accessible to all employees. The plan should detail which employees, if any, will remain in the building to shut down critical operations, and when they should abandon the operation and evacuate themselves. There should also be a designated meeting spot or other systems in place to account for everyone after the evacuation. Back-up copies of essential company documents, such as accounting and legal documents, as well as employees’ emergency contact lists should be stored in a secure location.
Employees should be educated about the threats and hazards that could occur in your workplace, and they need to be trained in their individual roles and responsibilities in an emergency. Training should be repeated annually, and new employees should be brought up to speed in the procedures soon after hire. If there are changes to the workplace that impact your plan – for instance, a redesign of the layout or the introduction of new hazardous materials – the plan should be altered and employees retrained accordingly.
As most people will find it difficult to think clearly and logically in a crisis, having a well-thought-out plan to guide their actions can go a long way in keeping them safe.
If you need assistance with workplace safety and catastrophe management, give us a call. The OSHA lawyers at Sheehy Ware and Pappas have a wide range of expertise ranging from OSHA compliance counseling and assessment to representing clients in the OSHA inspection process and in OSHA lawsuits.