According to Eyewitness News, an employee reported regular evacuation drills practiced twice a year, helped the company’s 70 employees evacuate quickly, without loss of life or injury an explosion and fire event in June.
The incident sheds light on an important part of preplanning for fires: the evacuation. When workers know how to respond, they can evacuate quickly and safely.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that between 2011 and 2015, there were a total of 37,910 fires at industrial or manufacturing properties. The death toll for these incidents was 16 while 273 others suffered injuries in fires that caused over $1.2 billion in direct property damage.
The report highlights that fire protection is more than installing an automatic sprinkler system, ensuring sufficient water supply, stocking up on firefighting foams, employing a fire brigade and training with local fire departments. You must know how you will evacuate personnel during a fire.
Fires, explosions and toxic chemical spills all demand immediate evacuation. A clearly defined and well-practiced evacuation plan ensures cooler heads prevail during a crisis.
Why You Need an Evacuation Plan
An evacuation plan isn’t a ‘nice to have;’ the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires them.
OSHA mandates every employer keep an Emergency Action Plan on file that includes detailed evacuation procedures. Any company having over 10 employees must post a written copy of the evacuation plan where staff will see it during an emergency.
Industrial facilities need a new plan anytime the building layout changes, they introduce new hazards, or have significant changes in personnel.
But a dusty evacuation plan, developed decades ago and never used, will prove useless to employees in an actual emergency. Employees need frequent reminders and drills to make their response second nature. Practicing the plan ensures everyone knows their roles and responds properly during an emergency.
Getting people out of the building helps the plant fire brigade and local fire departments battle the blaze. With others safely evacuated, they can focus their energies on coping with the emergency.
Other reasons for a solid evacuation plan include reputation. The last thing you want is the headlines to proclaim loss of lives, with survivors reporting they were unfamiliar with the safety plan.
Begin with a Risk Assessment
Gain a clear understanding of the potential emergencies that exist before developing an Emergency Action Plan.
Ready.gov reports “a risk assessment is a process to identify potential hazards and analyze what could happen if a hazard occurs.” The organization recommends three steps for thorough risk assessments:
Identify Hazards. What types of hazards might impact the company? Consider everything from natural disasters to human-caused dangers.
Vulnerability Assessment. Determine which assets are at risk from each identified hazard. Employees come first. But this assessment also must address supply chain interruptions and even company reputation.
Impact Analysis. This assessment calculates measurable damage from disasters.
Elements of an Emergency Action Plan
After you’ve identified your risk, it’s time to develop an Emergency Action Plan.
OSHA defines an emergency action plan as a plan that “covers designated actions employers and employees must take to ensure employee safety from fire and other emergencies.”
At a minimum, OSHA notes in “How to Plan for Workplace Emergencies and Evacuations” that an emergency action plan must include:
A preferred method for reporting fires and other emergencies
An evacuation policy and procedure
Emergency escape procedures and route assignments, such as floor plans, workplace maps, and safe or refuge areas
Names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of individuals both within and outside the company to contact for additional information or explanation of duties and responsibilities under the emergency plan
Procedures for employees who remain to perform or shut down critical plant operations, operate fire extinguishers, or perform other essential services before evacuating
Rescue and medical duties for any workers designated to perform them
Also consider designating an assembly location and procedures to account for all employees after an evacuation.
The more detailed the plan, the more effective it will be. OSHA identifies three additional elements that, while not required, can improve response.
Alarms. OSHA recommends distinctive alarms such as horn blasts, sirens or public address messages to alert employees.
Designating and communicating the location of an alternative command-and-communications center.
A secure on- or offsite location to store originals or duplicate copies of accounting records, legal documents, employees’ emergency contact lists, and other essential records.
Train on the Plan, Train Often
A comprehensive plan that meets all OSHA requirements, both required and recommended, won’t help if panic ensues during an emergency.
It’s critical that employees understand the plan and receive regular training in evacuation procedures. Training should comprise regularly scheduled and random drills, and formal training sessions. Include outside local resources such as neighboring fire and police departments in training drills.
OSHA recommends reviewing the plan with employees and at least annual training thereafter. The organization also suggests offering training to new hires; when introducing new equipment, materials or processes; when facility layout or design changes; and when the Emergency Action Plan gets updated.
General training should address:
Individual roles and responsibilities
Threats, hazards, and protective actions
Notification, warning, and communications procedures
Means for locating family members in an emergency
Emergency response procedures
Evacuation, shelter, and accountability procedures
Location and use of common emergency equipment
Emergency shutdown procedures.
Every plan should include instructions on when to leave. Plans also can detail what to do prior to evacuation (if time allows). For instance, the plan might recommend turning off machines, gas, electricity and flow of materials. Plans should stress leaving personal items behind and direct employees to assemble at a predetermined area until released.
Besides training on the emergency action plan, it’s imperative to educate employees about the emergencies that may occur and train them how to respond. The size of the workplace and workforce, processes used, materials handled, and the availability of onsite or outside resources will determine training scope.
Training also should cover special hazards onsite such as flammable materials, toxic chemicals, radioactive sources, or water-reactive substances and communicate who will be in charge during an emergency to minimize confusion.
Organizations also may train employees in first-aid procedures, including protection against blood-borne pathogens; respiratory protection, including using escape-only respirators; and methods for preventing unauthorized access to the site.
Revise the Plan
Holding regular practice drills keeps employees prepared, but should those drills identify weaknesses in the plan, it’s important to revisit the plan.
Gather management and employees after every drill to evaluate the plan’s effectiveness. Pinpoint any strengths and weaknesses and revise the plan to strengthen it.
A dusty evacuation plan that’s never put into practice puts employees at risk. Practice the plan so everyone knows how to respond during an emergency. As Chemtool discovered firsthand, these plans save lives.