You can’t rest easy just because you have an evacuation plan. Can you find it at a moment’s notice? Have you updated it lately and practiced it?
The threats that require evacuation of a building are many and varied: fire or release of environmental contaminants (in your building or a nearby one), weather (floods, earthquakes, tornadoes), criminal threats (bombs, assailants, workplace violence) and building equipment failures (power, elevators, false alarms). Not all threats require the same response.
Without a solid evacuation plan, or a more formally named Emergency Action Plan (EAP), your organization can be at risk of fines, liability, loss of life and property damage when an emergency goes from bad to worse. Moreover, your facility is not likely exempt from OSHA regulations regarding EAPs – almost every business requires one.
Who Is Required to Have a Plan?
If fire extinguishers are provided in a workplace and any occupants evacuate in an emergency, OSHA requires a written EAP. The only exemption is a facility with an in-house fire brigade in which every employee is trained and equipped to fight fires. If you have 10 or fewer employees, you may communicate your plan orally rather than in writing.
For offices, small retail shops and small manufacturing sites, a comparatively simple EAP should suffice. Sean Ahrens, Security Market Group Leader for Affiliated Engineers, Inc., says that adequate EAPs can often be done by building owners themselves without tapping outside consultants or experts.
According to OSHA, EAPs must cover the following basics but are not limited to these:
- Means of reporting fires and other emergencies
- Evacuation procedures and emergency escape route assignments
- Procedures to be followed by employees who remain to operate critical plant operations before they evacuate
- Procedures to account for all employees after an emergency evacuation has been completed
- Rescue and medical duties for those employees who are to perform them
- Names or job titles of persons who can be contacted for further information or explanation of duties under the plan
To avoid the additional hazards that a chaotic evacuation can cause, employees in charge or “wardens” need to know the conditions for shelter in place and for evacuation (and where to assemble occupants for each threat). A clear chain of command is important to authorize action. Wardens also need to have a plan to assist visitors and physically challenged occupants. One warden for every 20 employees should be adequate. After evacuation the wardens must account for employees.
OSHA e-Tools to the Rescue
The OSHA website (www.osha.gov) has a variety of resources, including checklists with questions/answers that take users step by step through the process of creating a plan. Here's a tool to help you build your own EAP.
The best emergency action plans include employees in the planning process, specify what employees should do during an emergency and ensure that employees receive proper training for emergencies. Encourage employees to offer suggestions about potential hazards, worst-case scenarios and proper emergency responses. Once completed, review the plan with your employees to ensure everyone knows what to do before, during and after. Keep a copy of your EAP where employees can find it or provide a copy to all.
Despite the relatively simple process of creating an adequate EAP, Ahrens believes that a great many employers – even large and sophisticated ones – fail to meet minimum requirements. He recalls visiting the upper floor of a high-rise office building in New York City that began to sway due to earthquake aftershocks. In the absence of immediate communication from building management, occupants made up their own minds to self-evacuate. In this case, these evacuees could have been endangered by falling glass and debris if they had assembled in the street.
Ahrens advises employees to take what he calls a simple “PDCA” approach – plan, do, check and act. Check your plan regularly. Whenever occupancy conditions change, revise and update. The plan doesn't always have to be practiced in the field, but you should at least have regular roundtables with employees about how to respond to emergencies.