The Power of Emergency Preparedness
Regardless of changing conditions, employers have a responsibility to make sure their workers are well-prepared for the risks their roles may pose.
- By Clare Epstein
- Dec 08, 2023
Despite the regulatory requirements placed on safety training and emergency preparedness in the workplace, many employers still fall short of setting their workers up for success. Providing staff with the education and training they need to be efficient, confident and prepared for emergencies isn’t as easy as it sounds due to ever-changing workplace conditions.
The scope and type of emergencies faced by employers and employees have evolved dramatically beyond the original preparedness standards initiated by OSHA in the 1970s and updated in 2002. Challenges like the rise in extreme weather events, increased types and complexity of emergencies, technical advances in emergency notifications and employee turnover require employers to review their emergency preparedness approach and training on a regular basis.
Regardless of changing conditions, employers have a responsibility to make sure their workers are well-prepared and equipped to handle whatever hazards, emergencies and day-to-day risks their roles may pose.
Why Does Emergency Preparedness Matter?
OSHA requires that employers develop and implement an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) and train all employees on this plan, both upon their date of hire and when the plan itself or the staff member’s responsibilities under the plan change. In practice, most employers train employees on emergency action plans and preparedness on an annual basis.
Emergency preparedness can result from a wide variety of conditions like hazardous material spills, fires and workplace violence. Extreme weather events also make up a large number of emergencies, and these types of events are only expected to increase. Per the National Safety Council (NSC), weather-related events increased by 11 percent between 2018 and 2022. The NSC reports that 69,473 weather events led to 813 deaths and 1,718 injuries in 2022 alone, with heat, winter weather, floods and hurricanes claiming the most lives.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the most significant benefit of promoting emergency preparedness is keeping employees physically safe during emergencies. Providing proper training and education for emergency preparedness can also assist in retaining employees. Employees need to feel confident their safety will be prioritized in the event of an emergency. Otherwise, they run the risk of feeling unprepared and unsupported by their organization.
The Emergency Action Plan
Up to two out of every five businesses that shut down in response to an emergency event or natural disaster don’t reopen their doors. Having a strong EAP in place is thus an absolute necessity. Such plans help employers assess the risk factors their organization faces and consolidate the resources they’ll need to appropriately respond to an emergency in real time.
Common elements of EAPs include (but are not limited to):
- Evacuation procedures
- Reporting and authority alerts
- Processes for alerting staff and visitors
- Accounting for employees
A robust and comprehensive EAP in place can prepare employers for whatever crises may arise. Here are five steps for ensuring your organization’s EAP is up to par:
- Create an EAP task force
A dedicated team of stakeholders who are intimately familiar with the EAP will ensure leaders—and their staff—are able to properly adhere to the steps outlined in the plan. The task force will also serve as a resource to update the EAP as external and internal emergency threats and responses change over time.
- Ensure the responses outlined in the EAP are accurate
Businesses face any number of safety risks, and the appropriate responses for each will be different. For instance, employees must evacuate the building in case of a fire but shelter in place in case of a hurricane. The EAP should outline all of the internal, external and human health risks your organization may face, along with the correct steps to follow should one of these emergencies occur.
- Have clear paths of communication
Communicating with response teams, employees and emergency contacts is a central part of navigating any crisis. The EAP should detail exactly who needs to be contacted, when to reach out, and the best channel for doing so.
For example, an Emergency Mass Notification System is a simple way to share one-way, real-time information with employees in the event of a threat. Such platforms enable leaders to provide weather updates, reminders about emergency protocols and all-clear notifications.
- Use existing data to predict future threats
Analyze your organization’s past responses to emergencies and incorporate real data from previous experiences. This information will help your business learn from past successes and mistakes so that you can improve your overall response.
Additionally, consider implementing technology that enables you to leverage real-time analytics to collect anonymous, crowd-sourced information. This will allow security personnel and risk managers to identify potential threats as early as possible.
Leaning on a safety management system that connects safety areas in a single platform can simplify processes and facilitate safety data analysis to bolster your organization’s emergency preparedness.
- Review and update your EAP
EAPs must be regularly reviewed and updated in accordance with emergent regulations and risk factors. Leaders should review their EAP at least once per year and consider potential new risks that need to be addressed.
Factors like increasing your employee headcount, changing climate conditions, opening a new location or remodeling your facility can all introduce new risks to your business. Organizations may need to modify their practices and training for emergency response and evacuation based on these changes.
Designing Superior Preparedness Training
OSHA recognizes the standards that regulate aspects of emergency response and preparedness require regular updates and could announce a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on this topic before the end of 2023. But the existing emergency response standards, which are decades old, do not encompass the range of hazards or concerns that workers may face in providing support in an emergency. Emergency response best practices and standards are also not represented in the current regulations.
As such, it’s the employer’s responsibility to fill in the gaps here and ensure their best practices for emergency response training extend beyond the basic OSHA requirements. Let’s explore some of these best practices and tips for implementing robust and effective emergency preparedness training.
- Emergency preparedness training for leaders
OSHA regulations require that employers train emergency evacuation leaders. These individuals are designated and trained to assist in the safe and orderly emergency evacuation of employees. Emergency preparedness training requires leaders to have a detailed understanding of communication procedures, evacuation routes and the emergency alarm system (emergency alarms are specifically called out in the current OSHA regulations).
Additional leader training, while not required under OSHA, is recognized as increasingly important to employers across every industry and, includes educating individuals on the soft skills needed to adequately support today’s workforce. Such training may include interpersonal leadership skills, diversity, equity and inclusion and stress management. These soft skills can be essential when leading a diverse workforce through a high-stress emergency or evacuation.
- Expanded scenarios of emergency preparedness
OSHA historically focused on emergency evacuation and egress when creating the preparedness standards, with a particular emphasis on fire/life safety emergencies. In fact, the original emergency action plan standard (1910.38) was initially called Employee Emergency Plans and Fire Prevention Plans.
Current emergency preparedness training recognizes a range of scenarios in addition to fires, including extreme weather conditions, active shooter and workplace violence, complex environmental and chemical spills, and even cybersecurity attacks. A best practice approach to emergency preparedness requires training your entire workforce—leaders and employees alike—on a wide range of various emergency scenarios and responses applicable to your organization.
- Technical advances in emergency preparedness training
Traditional emergency preparedness training may have consisted of an in-person presentation, followed by a fire drill or potentially complex and coordinated on-site emergency response drills. These tried-and-true methods are still valuable and essential training techniques.
However, modern online solutions offer the ability to provide training on a wide range of emergency scenarios in an efficient and cost-effective manner, which is especially critical given the long list of potential emergencies currently facing today’s workforce.
Online training also offers the ability to explore emergency scenarios utilizing 3-D modeling. For example, 3-D modeling can convey the spread and damage a fire can cause without having organizations actually experience a fire emergency. Online training can also provide scenario-based learning for emergencies, allowing the learner to experience different outcomes depending on the emergency or the response selected by the learner.
Prepared for Anything
In conclusion, emergency preparedness and training is more important than ever to ensure your organization responds appropriately and effectively to the wide range of potential hazards that could dramatically impact employee safety. Advances in emergency response procedures and planning, increased understanding of the different types of emergencies and leveraging online training content are all available tools to assist you and your workforce in preparing for these events.