Emergency Preparedness Goes Beyond Having What You Need

Natural disasters occur all over the world. Tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, fires, and countless other events happen without warning throughout the year. Though the nature of these disasters varies greatly depending on geography, being prepared is the best possible way to help ensure that you and your loved ones are as safe as possible if the unexpected were to occur.

In an effort to inform and support the public, several organizations around the world – including The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and Asian Disaster Preparedness Center – provide education and offer guidance on how to prepare for an emergency and why preparation is important. Additionally, global safety science organizations such as UL work with industry and other stakeholders to help ensure that the safest emergency preparedness products make it to market.

It may never be possible to be fully prepared for the unexpected, but there are several steps health and safety professionals can take to help reduce confusion and panic, ensure that everyone knows what to do in an emergency, and mitigate the harm that may be caused.

By thinking about disaster preparedness in three separate categories – what, how, and where – you can help everyone feel as ready as possible and prepared to act safely if the need arises.

What to Prepare
When deciding what to prepare for a potential natural disaster, there are some considerations that will be specific to the natural disasters most likely to occur in your area. However, some aspects of disaster preparedness should be part of every effort. Ultimately, everything should always start with a good plan. Ideally, this plan should address key aspects, including;

  • How to respond – Knowing how to safely exit or congregate, depending on the nature of the event, can alleviate panic and helps eliminate potentially unsafe routes.
  • Where to meet – A safe meeting spot offers optimal safety and shelter from the event and gives everyone a chance to respond and regroup.
  • Who to contact – If groups are separated at the time of the event or find themselves separated as the emergency unfolds, having an established contact chain makes it easier for everyone to stay connected.
  • How to receive emergency alerts and information – Having a robust notification system in place, and having employees proactively familiar with the system, helps everyone stay updated. This can include SMS text message alerts, radio, TV, or other sources.

After ensuring the basics are in order to help everyone feel safe and connected as quickly as possible, safety professionals should assess the environment to understand the unique needs of those who may be impacted by the disaster. In this situation, the environment includes both the building and those in it.

Traits to consider include the age of everyone at your site or business, medical needs that may exist and could require extra attention or equipment (medication, oxygen, special physical needs, batteries, etc.), dietary restrictions, and even languages spoken. Having all of this information in advance can reduce confusion and help provide a better assessment of needs in an emergency situation.

For occupational safety professionals, the foundational effort is to establish a fully developed plan that has been proactively developed with your unique considerations addressed and coordinated with local public safety officials. As a part of this plan, it is imperative to understand the proper use of any tools or specialized equipment associated with  the preparedness plan. All too often, tragic stories emerge of appropriate emergency tools being accidentally misused (or not used at all), risking the lives of those in the area.

How to Use Tools Safely
Imagine, for a moment, the following scenario:

Your facility is hit by a significant storm surges that causes a power outage. Everyone is safe, but the building is dark. A safety professional remains calm because a plan is in place, but does everyone know how to operate the backup resources? For some basics – first aid supplies, blankets, contact phone numbers – nobody needs to think twice, but what about portable generators?

Stationary generators are installed with a more specific operation scheme in place. On the other hand, it is easy to give something like a portable generator little thought because it isn't something that is needed very often. In fact, it was most likely purchased and stored and not previously used. If there has been no prior training on safe use of the portable generator, the worst possible time to teach how to safely operate it is during an emergency situation.

If your facility or site has a portable generator or is considering purchasing one, take the time to familiarize the team with its basic operation. This includes some seemingly simple things, such as how to connect it to your building or facility, how much power it supplies and, perhaps most importantly, in what locations it can be safely used.

Where to Use a Portable Generator
First – know where NOT to use it. One common misconception with portable generators is that they can simply be placed indoors so they're easy to access and users are protected from the elements. However convenient this may seem, operating a portable generator in indoor locations is extremely dangerous and can be fatal.

Portable generators produce carbon monoxide (CO). This odorless, colorless gas is toxic and can lead to poisoning or even death with prolonged exposure. According to the "Non-Fire Carbon Monoxide Deaths Associated with the Use of Consumer Products 2014 Annual Estimates" from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, carbon monoxide produced by portable generators has been associated with an estimated 696 non-fire CO poisoning fatalities since 2004, the highest number of fatalities from any single consumer product covered by CPSC. The number of reported poisonings is significantly higher.

When using a portable generator, it is never safe to do so inside, even if windows or doors are kept open. Rather, the generator should be placed at a distance of at least 20 feet from a building. In order to promote the safe use of portable generators, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has published the Fact Sheet "Using Portable Generators Safely".

When a generator is used indoors or simply too close to a building, carbon monoxide poses a significant risk. As part of CPSC's efforts to help reduce these easily preventable tragedies from occurring, the organization turned to UL for help developing a safety standard.

UL, in collaboration with CPSC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and other parties, recently developed a standard that takes a two-pronged approach to creating a safer environment for use of portable generators. Generator manufacturers wishing to have their products listed as compliant to ANSI/UL 2201, Standard for Carbon Monoxide (CO) Emission Rate of Portable Generators, an American National Standard, must demonstrate that their portable generators both meet requirements for reduced carbon monoxide emissions and have a system that will shut down the generator if excess levels of the toxic gas are detected. 

The standard was written to be agnostic in terms of how these two requirements are met, but proven methods to meet both of these requirements already exist in the market – including electronic fuel injection options long used by the automotive industry. Several portable generator manufacturers have already taken the initiative to produce safer products that meet the requirements of UL 2201. To determine whether your facility's portable generators have been certified to UL 2201, look for the UL Mark on product packaging or on the product itself. Also, best practice is to update your procurement policies to require a generator that is UL certified for safety to UL 2201. The UL Mark indicates that the product has met the rigorous requirements of the standard and has been tested by UL, an independent third-party safety science organization.

When faced with an emergency, safety professionals should remember that the placement of a portable generator when in use is critical – at least 20 feet from the building. Practicing safe operation while also using a portable generator from a manufacturer that has demonstrated a strong commitment to safety by meeting the requirements of a rigorous standard such as UL 2201 demonstrates best OHS practices, which can provide peace of mind. And, in cases of emergency, some peace of mind is always welcome.

Ken Boyce is, Principal Engineer Director at UL. For more information, visit UL.com/PortableGenerators.

Posted on Aug 01, 2018

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