Figure 1. Organizations that create a culture of safety by incorporating senior leaders, a facility coordinator, an emergency response team, and the general workforce into their emergency response plans have a much higher rate of success when responding to emergencies.

Is Your Emergency Response Plan a Living System or Just Gathering Dust?

Use these practical tips and best practices to create and maintain an effective emergency response plan. Frequent practice drills are essential.

Now is a great time to refresh or create your emergency response plan. Considering the recent increase in natural and man-made disasters, the need to be prepared in the workplace is evident.

All too often, health and safety personnel and human resources professionals find their plans are outdated or incomplete due to lack of time or staff turnover. Or they may be unsure about which best practices to incorporate to create a culture of safety within their organizations. The good news is that there are many resources available to help create an effective plan or brush the dust off of your existing plan. Here are some tips, best practices, and training suggestions to ensure that you, your staff, and your company are prepared.

Strategy Matters: Moving Beyond the Nuts and Bolts
Regardless of whether you have an existing plan or are creating a new one, there are key components every plan must contain (as required by OSHA). These include on-site training of your emergency response team, orientation for the general workforce about the specifics of each facility;s plan, and the implementation of an emergency-specific alert system to notify employees when an emergency arises.

If your organization doesn't have a plan, templates are available online. Although these generic templates can be a good place to start, many organizations find it helpful to confer with specialists regarding the psychological aspects of emergency response and training.

As with creating or updating any program, the first step is to establish goals. The primary goals of an emergency response plan are to protect the health and safety of employees and minimize property damage. After establishing goals, brainstorm to identify the risks facing your organizations—for example, fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, bombs, and shootings. Be thorough, because omitting a risk can leave your organization unprepared and vulnerable, should that eventuality occur.

Next is the important process of assessing and evaluating the anticipated actions, personnel, processes, and equipment your organization needs to successfully respond to an emergency. Consider the:

  • Sequence of anticipated actions in an emergency
  • Personnel available to perform the anticipated actions
  • Training required to enable successful performance
  • Equipment and supplies required to perform anticipated actions
  • Communications needed to convey/alert response team
  • Reporting requirements

With the evaluation phase complete, you're ready to assign roles and responsibilities to your emergency response staff and employees. When selecting an employee for a role, consider not only that person’s position within your organization, but also his or her personality—specifically tolerance for risk. Many people are risk averse, which means they may freeze when the time comes to act. Seek out those individuals who are comfortable in leadership positions involving risk (often "Type A" personalities).

"For ordinary people, watching someone collapse and become unconscious is the most daunting emotional moment of their lives, regardless of how many CPR cards they have," Frank J. Poliafico, R.N., director of Training at Emergency University, explains. "In addition to overcoming their fear of being responsible for life or death, they must also overcome cultural hurdles, like touching or undressing a stranger in public. To combat these cultural taboos, Emergency University incorporates behavioral science alongside medical science into our WorkSafe program."

Staff Roles and Response Structures
In your plan, it’s a good idea to account for as much as a 25 percent per year turnover in assigned personnel. You can prepare for this by having a list of backup emergency response personnel. Common staff roles and responsibilities include:

Incident Commander/Team Leader: Leads the organizational response and serves as a liaison with outside emergency response agencies. Responsibilities include:

  • Internal notifications
  • External notifications
  • Initial emergency procedures
  • Managing ongoing internal and external communications
  • Managing internal and external reporting
  • Dispatch requests for assistance
  • Direct ongoing emergency activities

Floor Wardens: Assists in the evacuation of the general workforce from pre-designated work areas; responsible for directing the general workforce from their work space through the designated evacuation route to the assembly area.

Security/Search and Rescue Team: Checks that the building is clear of personnel and assists in the evacuation of distressed personnel. Responsibilities include:

  • Search designated building areas to ensure the workforce has been evacuated
  • Respond to distress calls and assist in evacuation
  • Communicate and report to Incident Commander

General Workforce: Your workforce has one primary responsibility—to safely evacuate the workplace. They do this by taking direction from the Floor Wardens, by following the evacuation plan to reach the pre-designated assembly area and by communicating their safe exit.

With the roles assigned, the final step is to choose a response structure that best fits your organization, based on the level of risk and available personnel and resources. Figure 1 illustrates an organizational model used for sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) emergencies.

No matter what structure you choose, if you decide to develop multiple emergency response plans for specific incidents such sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), non-medical emergencies, and natural disasters, be sure to use the same workflow in each of your plans. In an emergency, employees respond best to familiar organizational structures.

Emergency Training is Unlike Any Other
There are training programs for just about every skill an employee needs to learn and demonstrate, but training employees to respond in an emergency is particularly difficult for many reasons. During an emergency, emotions run high. Critical decisions need to be made quickly. Responders must evaluate the situation and act immediately, even though the information they receive may be inconsistent or conflicting. Most challenging of all, they will rarely be called upon to use what they’ve learned in a real emergency.

Because information and training that are utilized infrequently are the easiest to forget, frequent practice drills are essential. In addition to giving your workforce ample opportunity to practice what they have learned, drills can help you determine if your plan is practical or needs to be modified.

 Best Practices for Emergency Response Training
 Focus training based on an individual's responsibilities
 Give substantial consideration to behavioral issues
 Standardize training across your organization
 Implement consistent plans and processes
 Create regular drill schedules

Integrate Technology Into Your Response Process
Now more than ever, technology plays a critical role in emergency response plans, from text messages to email blasts and social media messages. If your company provides cell phones to employees, be sure to integrate these mobile devices into your plan because they can be used to help keep track of personnel, communicate areas of danger, and identify where additional help is needed.

 Types of Emergency Communications
 Automated phone message
 Text message alerts
 Social networking sites
 Website
 Email blasts
 Phone call alerts
 Emergency management team press conference

When incorporating multiple technologies, be sure to outline the communications channels that will be used and incorporate recent technological advancements such as:
  • Software applications that allow you to create mass text message lists for your emergency response staff, general workforce, and other critical employees
  • A mobile app to facilitate real-time communication between emergency response staff and EMT personnel and provide step-by-step instructions for risk-averse employees

Be Prepared for Pitfalls
Despite all of your preparation, when an emergency actually happens, many things can prevent your organization from successfully executing the emergency response plan. Here are a few incidents that have occurred at companies during an actual emergency:

  • The assigned incident commander was at a conference and several floor wardens were on vacation.
  • Due to staff turnover, fewer trained people were available than anticipated.
  • Insufficient practice drills resulted in employees being unable or unwilling to perform their assigned tasks.
  • No one knew where to find the Emergency Response Plan. ("I think it's in a drawer somewhere….")
  • Faced with fear and chaos, the emergency response team admitted they did not fully understand the emergency response plan.
  • The emergency response training emphasized skills, not response and the emotional components that go along with it, so no one was willing to "spring into action."
  • The emergency response team was trained in CPR, AED, and first aid but had not received training about how to direct a workforce evacuation or assist disabled personnel.

Ultimately, you should think of your emergency response plan as a living document—one that adapts to the ongoing needs of your organization and your environment. With frequent updates, thoughtful planning, and regular staff training and drills, your plan will help protect your workforce in an emergency by preparing them to effectively respond when the time comes.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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