Think the Unthinkable in Disaster Planning

Looking at the real challenges the company is facing or could face in the future enables accurate gap analysis and development of a plan of action.

When you think about disasters, what images come to mind? Do you envision a tornado or other weather-related system ripping through your community and destroying homes and businesses in the process? Or maybe you envision a fire, system malfunction, medical emergency, or other major disaster?

A disaster is any unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility's financial standing or public image. The key is to mitigate threats before a disaster occurs yet have a plan in place to respond appropriately.

Disaster planning requires employers to think the unthinkable but be realistic. Considering the real challenges the company is facing or could face in the future as a result of industry, location, and size -- not every conceivable threat -- will paint an accurate picture of where the company is and where it should be. Being aware of the gaps and deciding how to correct deficiencies will foster the development of an action plan that will ensure employee safety, as well as business survival.

A good place to start is gathering information on current processes, procedures, and capabilities, as well as possible hazards and emergencies. Risk assessments will reveal existing and potential threats and assist in the development of procedures employees must follow during an emergency. Four critical areas that should be assessed are procedures for evacuation, first aid, fire prevention, and communication.

Risk Assessments
When conducting a risk assessment, brainstorm potential emergency scenarios and take a walk around your facility. Be critical in your analysis of the work environment and speak with employees to gain insight on current issues and foreseeable threats.

Also, think about past emergencies or incidents that occurred at the facility, in the neighborhood, or in your community. Specifically, you should analyze:

  • Processes or work procedures that have been known to present risks to employees
  • Natural or manmade threats to the facility based on location or the security procedures
  • Design or construction of the building with regard to exit routes and storage of hazardous chemicals or flammable/combustible materials
  • Hazards common in the industry.

Additionally, you must understand the resources and capabilities that you have available or that could be needed. This includes:

  • Personnel such as fire brigade, hazardous materials response team, and workplace emergency responders
  • Services that you provide to others or that you depend upon that may be disrupted in an emergency
  • Equipment such as fire protection and suppression equipment, communications equipment, first aid supplies, and emergency supplies
  • Facilities such as shelter areas, first aid stations, and sanitation facilities.

Step 1: Assess Evacuation Procedures
One critical area to assess is your evacuation procedures. Does the company expect employees to evacuate, shelter in place, or respond in an emergency situation? Only you can make this determination; one OSHA plan that definitely will assist in communicating company expectations is the Emergency Action Plan (EAP).

Almost every business is required to have an EAP; however, even if this type of plan is not a requirement for your company, it's a best practice that helps employees understand their roles and the steps to take in an emergency.

As a part of a written EAP, you must include:

  • How employees report emergencies,
  • Evacuation routes and procedures,
  • Head count procedures to account for all employees in case of an evacuation,
  • Procedures for any employee who stays behind to shut down critical plant equipment,
  • Fire and other employee alarms, and
  • Employee training on the EAP.

But an employer's responsibility doesn't end there. The plan must be put into action.

Make sure employees know the names or job titles of those who can answer questions and provide direction in an emergency. Also, make sure that an alarm system is in place to warn all employees, including those who may have physical impairments, that an emergency exists and requires immediate action. Lastly, make sure there are at least two exit routes that will permit prompt evacuation and that the routes are cleared of debris. Performing regular drills can help employees internalize the procedures, especially if they are required to shut down critical plant equipment; drills are not required by OSHA, however.

Step 2: Assess First Aid Procedures
Another critical area to focus on is first aid procedures. In a true emergency, the likelihood of a medical emergency is real and first aid can bridge the gap until more comprehensive medical care becomes available.

You will need to decide how injured employees will be handled. Will you have trained first aid responders on site or not?

From OSHA's perspective, employers have options: Either use trained on-site employees or rely on outside emergency responders. However, it is mandated that employers have adequately trained employees who are able to render first aid on site if outside emergency services cannot respond within 3 to 4 minutes. Remember that depending on the disaster, outside services may be overwhelmed or unable to respond in time.

OSHA also gives employers options with regard to first aid supplies. Although you are expected to have "adequate" first aid supplies available and immediately accessible, each company has different needs. Employers must get advice on appropriate types and amounts of first aid supplies from a medical professional. However, OSHA recognizes the ANSI standard on first aid kits as a valuable resource for employers to use for first aid supplies.

Step 3: Assess Fire Prevention Procedures
The third critical area lies in fire prevention. Obviously, the best defense against a fire is to prevent one from starting in the first place. However, many types of packaging, chemicals, electrical work, and processes commonly used today pose fire hazards. Employees need to know how to keep fires from starting, as well as how to deal with a fire emergency.

Do your employees know about good housekeeping procedures, proper handling and storage procedures for hazardous materials, potential ignition sources and their control, and the type of fire protection equipment necessary to control each major hazard? A fire prevention plan will communicate the company's expectations for reducing fire hazards. Although this plan may not be required for all employers, again, it is a best practice. Working with the fire department and local emergency planning committees and allowing them to visit the facility during plan development can provide helpful insights and direction.

Step 4: Assess Communication Procedures
The fourth critical area deals with communication since it is a tool that not only enables emergencies to be reported, but also warns personnel of danger. Adequate communications are also needed to keep families and off-duty employees informed about what's happening at the facility, as well as to coordinate response actions and keep in contact with customers and suppliers. How will you communicate with employees, local authorities, customers, and others during and after an emergency situation? What is your backup plan?

Good emergency communication provides accurate and timely information to prevent ineffective, fear-driven, and potentially damaging public responses to a serious crisis. Specifically, you should create procedures that enable the company to:

  • Keep employees up to date on the crisis and how to report to work,
  • Provide top company executives with relevant information,
  • Reassure the public that all resources are being used to protect employees,
  • Update customers on product/service status,
  • Inform governmental officials of the steps that will be taken to lead recovery efforts, and
  • Provide neighboring companies with a prompt briefing so threat levels can be evaluated.

The Bottom Line
Disasters do happen. That's why looking at the risks your company is exposed to and putting plans in place to respond to those risks when emergencies arise is the responsibility of every employer. Having a plan of action in place can ensure employee safety, as well as business survival.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Stefanie Williams is an Associate Editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. in Neenah, Wis. Contact her at [email protected]. For more information on J. J. Keller & Associates, visit

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