Emergency Preparedness, Safety

The Way to the Egress: A Guide to Workplace Evacuations, Part 1

Sometimes a company’s employees just need to leave. Workplace emergencies can range from isolated chemical spills, fires, toxic gas releases, and active shooter incidents to local flooding; hurricanes; tornados; and, more rarely, terrorist attacks. Workplace lockdowns or sheltering in place may be the appropriate response, but sometimes you need to evacuate your facility. But first, you need a plan.

In Part 1 of this two-part series on workplace evacuations, we share the importance of building an effective Emergency Action Plan and establishing a safety strategy for various emergency scenarios.

Emergency evacuations, including workplace evacuations, are more common than you might think, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Year after year, the most common causes of evacuations are fires and floods. You may communicate your fire prevention plan orally if you have 10 or fewer employees; however, OSHA regulations require you to have a written fire prevention plan if you have more than 10 employees.

Evacuate or Shelter in Place?

In some emergencies, your best response may be a workplace evacuation, and in other situations, your best option may be to have your employees shelter in place. OSHA encourages employers to prepare for both scenarios. Planning and preparation, either for evacuation or for sheltering in place, are critical, as many disasters are no-notice events.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted that the 2021 hurricane season may be as active as the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which saw 30 named storms, including 14 hurricanes. While hurricanes most often strike coastal areas, storm systems can move inland, and even after hurricanes are downgraded to tropical storm status, they still can produce heavy rains and flooding. What would you do if a tropical storm hits your facility head-on after moving on shore?

You can be swept off your feet in as little as 6 inches of water, according to the National Safety Council (NSC); 6 inches of water can stall a car, and most cars, trucks, and SUVs will float in 2 feet of water.

Working conditions can quickly deteriorate in an approaching hurricane or tropical storm, and afterward, you may not be able to immediately reopen once the heavy rains, high winds, and storm surge have passed. Hazards following hurricanes and tropical storms may include the biological and chemical hazards of contaminated floodwaters, damaged power lines, debris and downed trees, and carbon monoxide fumes from diesel or gasoline-powered generators.

Floods and hurricanes are not the only emergencies that might necessitate an evacuation. Is your facility near rail lines or an interstate highway? What would you do in the event of a hazardous materials spill?

Extreme weather conditions this year also include drought and the associated risk of wildfires and wildfire smoke hazards. About 50 percent of the country continues to experience drought conditions, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, and federal wildland fire experts have predicted above-normal fire potential for several regions of the Plains and the West.

Wildfire smoke can contain both harmful chemicals and tiny particles, particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). PM2.5 poses health hazards that include bronchitis, heart failure, reduced lung function, and worsening of asthma. In the event of a wildfire, you may need to evacuate employees to protect them from the hazards of wildfire smoke, even if your facility is not in the path of the fire itself.

Emergency Action Plan

An emergency action plan spells out actions that will be taken in the event of a fire or another emergency. When developing a plan, you may benefit from consulting your frontline employees and local emergency response agencies, as well as your managers and supervisors.

At a minimum, your emergency action plan should include:

  • A preferred method of reporting a fire and other emergencies;
  • An evacuation policy, detailing both what events would trigger an evacuation and evacuation routes and procedures;
  • Emergency escape procedures and designated evacuation routes with floor plans, workplace maps, and safe or refuge areas;
  • A chain of command with names, job titles, departments, and telephone numbers of individuals both within and outside your company to contact for additional information, along with descriptions or explanations of their duties and responsibilities under the emergency action plan;
  • Policies and procedures for workers who must remain to shut down or continue performing critical plant operations, operate fire extinguishers, or perform other essential services to ensure others’ safety; and
  • First aid or medical services and rescue duties and a list of employees designated to perform them.

You also will need procedures for accounting for all employees following an evacuation.

While disaster or emergency planning always is a good idea, some OSHA standards require it. Federal OSHA standards requiring an emergency action plan include process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals (29 CFR §1910.119); hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER, §1910.120); grain-handling facilities (§1910.272); ethylene oxide (§1910.1047); methylenedianiline (§1910.1050); and 1,3-butadiene (§1910.1051). The ethylene oxide; methylenedianiline; and 1,3-butadiene standards also require fire prevention plans.

Evacuations may not be an option for all your employees. Sometimes, some must remain behind to maintain or shut down critical operations. Employees who must remain to continue or shut down critical operations during an evacuation must be trained to recognize when to abandon the operations and evacuate themselves. Members of an emergency response team must be thoroughly trained for potential crises and need to know about any toxic hazards in the workplace.

Emergency response teams also must be trained in the following:

  • Use of fire extinguishers
  • First aid, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)
  • OSHA’s bloodborne pathogens standard
  • Shutdown and chemical spill response procedures
  • Hazardous materials emergency response
  • Search-and-rescue procedures

It is also vital for all workplace emergency response teams to be able to judge when to rely on outside help from local emergency response agencies.

If your operations fall under the scope of OSHA’s emergency action plan standard (§1910.38), you also will need to develop and implement a training program so your workers are prepared for an emergency.

Training and evacuation drills may be critical to your employees’ health, safety, and survival. Rick Rescorla, head of security for Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center, repeatedly drilled the company’s employees following the February 26, 1993, bombing and is credited with safely evacuating Morgan Stanley’s employees following the September 11, 2001, attacks.

In addition to establishing emergency action plans and determining what events will trigger an evacuation, you also need to maintain clear paths of egress within your facility.

In Part 2 of this series, we will take a closer look at establishing exit routes and disaster preparedness methods.

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