Communication with residents and building occupants is key to preparing them for emergencies.

Training Employees to Recognize and Respond to Hazards

Employees should be trained to respond appropriately to each scenario that is applicable to their workplace, which could mean training everyone not only to evacuate, but also to shelter in place and how to lock down areas.

Emergency Action and Fire Prevention Plans establish frameworks for responding to workplace emergencies. But without training, employees cannot be expected to know what is written in those plans, which hazards they could face, or how to respond to emergency situations.

In an emergency, it can be hard to predict how employees will react. Training helps to increase predictability by giving employees the information that they need to make better decisions and react to emergencies faster. From determining whether they should evacuate or shelter in place to knowing who is in charge during an emergency and who can talk to reporters, the better trained that employees are to follow emergency procedures, the better the odds for a safe outcome.

Workplace Hazards
Fires are one example of a potential workplace hazard that all facilities must plan for and for which they must provide training for their workforces. Because most primary and secondary schools have fire drills, by the time people enter the workforce, they can already associate hearing an alarm with evacuating the building. However, they still need to be taught how to navigate evacuation routes, where to go after they are out of the building, and whom to report to.

Facilities also must be prepared for medical emergencies and, if they handle chemicals, how to respond to spills. Some facilities may have other hazards, such as explosive or toxic gasses, that require more advanced preparations and procedures.

Additional hazards also may need to be addressed, such as preparing for tornadoes, hurricanes, or other natural weather disturbances. Unfortunately, they also need to be taught how to handle situations involving workplace violence or terroristic events, for this is also a necessity. Plans should be in place and employees should be trained to respond appropriately to each of the scenarios that is applicable to their workplace, which could mean training everyone not only to evacuate, but also to shelter in place and how to lock down areas.

Alarms and Alerts
Visual and auditory alarms are purposely designed to draw attention. They can alert production employees of a processing line that is going to start moving. They can warn pedestrians that a forklift is backing up or entering an intersection. They can let everyone in the area know that someone just came in the back door.

Employees need to be taught to recognize the various sounds and lights that are used as warnings. If multiple types of alarms and signals are used, each should be distinctive enough that it does not cause confusion as to its meaning. They also should be shown where pull alarms are located and when to use them to alert others of an emergency.

In addition to traditional alarms, many facilities now also use additional alerting methods, such as text messaging and audible alerts that provide vocal instructions in emergencies. This is especially helpful because they can provide specific information and assist with communication gaps. It also can hasten the speed of evacuations, because studies performed by the American Psychological Association have shown that without additional information, some people will ignore alarms or hesitate before evacuating until they either see the source of the danger or have enough information to motivate them to leave their area.

Evacuation Procedures
When people do finally decide to evacuate, they will instinctively exit the same way that they typically enter the building. This is true even when exit routes are well marked and when they provide a more direct route out of the building. Part of this has to do with the habit that is formed by entering the same way each day, but subconsciously, most people are reluctant to use an unfamiliar route, especially in an emergency.

Training and regular drills that force people to use a variety of exit routes can help to overcome the uncertainty about where an exit route is located or where it may lead and will help to avoid one exit being overwhelmed during evacuations. Theatres in New York City successfully practice this concept daily, whether they or their patrons realize it or not. Everyone enters through the front doors of the theatre before a Broadway show begins. However, after each show, ushers guide everyone in the audience to the building exit that is nearest to them, which is often not the same way they entered. This is primarily done to help get everyone out of the building more quickly, but it also helps to minimize congestion in one or two hallways and in an emergency would facilitate faster evacuations.

Employees should practice using primary and alternative routes to evacuate from their workstations as well as from conference rooms, cafeterias, and other areas of the building. They also should be taught to instruct visitors about the facility's evacuation procedures and, if an evacuation is necessary, to provide assistance with getting them to rally points.

Shutdown and Response Procedures
When an emergency alarm sounds, a majority of employees may be able to immediately evacuate the building or seek appropriate shelter. Others may be assigned with operational shutdown tasks that need to be performed before they evacuate or seek shelter.

Some of these tasks may include backing up or securing digital information, turning off machines, or closing doors and gates. Whatever the tasks, each needs to be assigned to a specific person, and those people needs to be trained on how to do their tasks safely and in a timely enough manner that they can also evacuate or get to shelter safely.

In many facilities, employees perform emergency or other response operations such as using fire extinguishers, controlling spills, performing first aid and CPR, aiding someone with mobility limitations, or rescuing someone from harm. These skills should all be practiced regularly, and procedures should be developed to ensure that they can be performed safely in a variety of emergency situations.

Most employees can correlate the need to get out of the building with their personal safety. Some may need help with understanding accountability.

Unless they are trained, they may not see how getting to rally points quickly or checking in with a safety warden is important after they evacuate or when they reach a safe sheltering location. Explaining the next steps in the process, such as the possible need to send in an emergency responder to find missing people or assembling everyone for safe transport to another building or location, can help them to see that accountability is part of the overall process to ensure everyone's continued safety.

Accountability also can extend to non-work-related emergencies that affect entire communities. Sharing the facility's plans to account for employees after a widespread disaster, as well as the business continuity plans that are in place to help the facility quickly recover after a disaster, demonstrate employer commitment to their safety, both on and off the job.

Training and drills take time and disrupt normal work activities. However, without them, employees may not have the knowledge and experience that they need to take appropriate actions to ensure their safety in emergencies. Providing training and allowing time in production and business schedules to perform evacuation, shelter in place, and other emergency drills reinforces learning and positive safety behaviors.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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