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Planning for Workplace Emergencies

Written by Steve Hudgik

Free Safety Inspection Workbook

From: Booklet Published by: U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA 3088

This article provides a generic overview of Planning for Workplace Emergencies and Evacuations. Because interpretations and OSHA enforcement policy may change over time, the best sources for additional guidance on OSHA compliance requirements for workplace emergencies are the current administrative interpretations and decisions by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and the courts.

Introduction - Expect The Unexpected

Nobody expects an emergency or disaster – especially one that affects them, their employees, and their business personally. Yet the simple truth is that emergencies and disasters can strike anyone, anytime, and anywhere. You and your employees may be forced to evacuate your facility when you least expect it. This article is designed to help you, the employer, plan for that possibility. The best way to protect yourself, your workers, and your business is to expect the unexpected and develop a well-thought-out emergency plan to guide you when an emergency arises.

What is a workplace emergency?

A workplace emergency is an unforeseen situation that threatens your employees, customers or the public. It may disrupt or shut down your operations. It may cause physical or environmental damage. Emergencies may be natural or manmade. They include events such as the following:

Hurricane Damage
  • Flooding
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Fire
  • Toxic gas releases
  • Chemical spills
  • Radiological accidents
  • Explosions
  • Civil disturbances and riots
  • Workplace violence resulting in bodily harm and trauma

How can you protect yourself, your employees, and your business?

The best way to prepare is to know what you will do before it happens. Few people can think clearly and logically in a crisis. Because of this it is important to plan in advance to establish in advance how you will respond in an emergency.

Start by brainstorming to come up with the worst-case scenarios. Ask yourself what you would do if the worst happened. What if a fire broke out in your boiler room? Or hurricane force winds hit your building? Or a train carrying hazardous waste derailed as it was passing your loading dock? Once you have identified potential emergencies, consider how they might affect you and your workers, and how you would respond.

What is an emergency action plan? Does OSHA require an emergency action plan?

An emergency action plan describes the actions employers and employees must take to ensure safety from fire and other emergencies. Not all employers are required by OSHA to establish an emergency action plan. However, even if you are not specifically required to do so, creating an emergency action plan is a good way to protect yourself, your employees, and your business during an emergency.

Putting together a comprehensive emergency action plan that deals with all types of issues specific to your work site is not difficult. You may find it beneficial to include your management team and employees in the process. Explain your goal of protecting lives and property in the event of an emergency, and ask for their help in establishing and implementing your emergency action plan. Their commitment and support are critical to the plan’s success.

What should your emergency action plan include?

When developing your emergency action plan, it's a good idea to look at a wide variety of potential emergencies that could happen in or near your workplace. Your plan should be tailored to your work site and include information about all potential sources of emergencies. Developing an emergency action plan means you should do a hazard assessment to determine what, if any, physical or chemical hazards in your workplaces could cause an emergency. If you have more than one work site, each site should have an emergency action plan.

At a minimum, your emergency action plan must include the following:

  • 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 your 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 that cannot be shut down for every emergency alarm before evacuating
  • Rescue and medical duties for any workers designated to perform them

You also may want to consider designating an assembly location and procedures to account for all employees after an evacuation.

In addition, although they are not specifically required by OSHA, you may find it helpful to include the following in your plan:

Hurricane Damage Truck and Building
  • The site of an alternative communications center to be used in the event of a fire or explosion; and
  • A secure onsite or off site location to store originals or duplicate copies of accounting records, legal documents, your employee's emergency contact lists, and other essential records.

Your plan must include a way to alert employees, including disabled workers, to evacuate or take other action, and it must describe how to report emergencies. Among the steps you must take are the following:

  • Make sure alarms are distinctive and recognized by all employees as a signal to evacuate the work area or perform actions identified in your plan
  • Make available an emergency communications system such as a public address system, portable radio unit, or other means to notify employees of the emergency and to contact local law enforcement, the fire department, and others
  • Stipulate that alarms must be able to be heard, seen, or otherwise perceived by everyone in the workplace. You might want to consider providing an auxiliary power supply in the event that electricity is shut off. (29 CFR 1910.165(b)(2) offers more information on alarms.)

Although it is not specifically required by OSHA, you also may want to consider the following:

  • Using tactile devices to alert employees who would not otherwise be able to recognize an audible or visual alarm
  • Providing an updated list of key personnel such as the plant manager or physician, in order of priority, to notify in the event of an emergency during off-duty hours

A disorganized evacuation can result in confusion, injury, and property damage. That is why when developing your emergency action plan it is important to determine the following:

Conditions under which an evacuation would be necessary;

  • A clear chain of command and designation of the person in your business authorized to order an evacuation or shutdown. You may want to designate an “evacuation warden” to assist others in an evacuation and to account for personnel;
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits. Post these procedures where they are easily accessible to all employees;
  • Procedures for assisting people with disabilities or who do not speak English;
  • Designation of what, if any, employees will continue or shut down critical operations during an evacuation. These people must be capable of recognizing when to abandon the operation and evacuate themselves; and
  • A system for accounting for personnel following an evacuation. Consider employees’ transportation needs for community-wide evacuations.

In the event of an emergency, local emergency officials may order you to evacuate your premises. In some cases, they may instruct you to shut off the water, gas, and electricity. If you have access to radio or television, listen to newscasts to keep informed and follow any official orders you receive.

In other cases, a designated person within your company should be responsible for making the decision to evacuate or shut down operations. Protecting the health and safety of everyone in the facility should be the first priority. In the event of a fire, an immediate evacuation to a predetermined area away from the facility is the best way to protect employees. On the other hand, evacuating employees may not be the best response to an emergency such as a toxic gas release at a facility across town from your business.

The type of building you work in may be a factor in your decision. Most buildings are vulnerable to the effects of disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, or explosions. The extent of the damage depends on the type of emergency and the building’s construction. Modern factories and office buildings, for example, are framed in steel and are structurally more sound than neighborhood business premises may be. In a disaster such as a major earthquake or explosion, however, nearly every type of structure will be affected. Some buildings will collapse and others will be left with weakened floors and walls.

When drafting your emergency action plan, you may wish to select a responsible individual to lead and coordinate your emergency plan and evacuation. It is critical that employees know who the coordinator is and understand that person has the authority to make decisions during emergencies. The coordinator should be responsible for the following:

Flooded Cars - Transportation No Longer Available
  • Assessing the situation to determine whether an emergency exists requiring activation of your emergency procedures
  • Supervising all efforts in the area, including evacuating personnel
  • Coordinating outside emergency services, such as medical aid and local fire departments, and ensuring that they are available and notified when necessary
  • Directing the shutdown of plant operations when required

You also may find it beneficial to coordinate the action plan with other employers when several employers share the work site, although OSHA standards do not specifically require this. In addition to a coordinator, you may want to designate evacuation wardens to help move employees from danger to safe areas during an emergency. Generally, one warden for every 20 employees should be adequate, and the appropriate number of wardens should be available at all times during working hours.

Employees designated to assist in emergency evacuation procedures should be trained in the complete workplace layout and various alternative escape routes. All employees and those designated to assist in emergencies should be made aware of employees with special needs who may require extra assistance, how to use the buddy system, and hazardous areas to avoid during an emergency evacuation.

When preparing your emergency action plan, designate primary and secondary evacuation routes and exits. To the extent possible under the conditions, ensure that evacuation routes and emergency exits meet the following conditions:

  • Clearly marked and well lit
  • Wide enough to accommodate the number of evacuating personnel
  • Unobstructed and clear of debris at all times
  • Unlikely to expose evacuating personnel to additional hazards

If you prepare drawings that show evacuation routes and exits, post them prominently for all employees to see.

Accounting for all employees following an evacuation is critical. Confusion in the assembly areas can lead to delays in rescuing anyone trapped in the building, or unnecessary and dangerous search-and-rescue operations. To ensure the fastest, most accurate accountability of your employees, you may want to consider including these steps in your emergency action plan:

  • Designate assembly areas where employees should gather after evacuating
  • Take a head count after the evacuation. Identify the names and last known locations of anyone not accounted for and pass them to the official in charge
  • Establish a method for accounting for non-employees such as suppliers and customers
  • Establish procedures for further evacuation in case the incident expands. This may consist of sending employees home by normal means or providing them with transportation to an off site location.

It takes more than just willing hands to save lives. Untrained individuals may endanger themselves and those they are trying to rescue. For this reason, it is generally wise to leave rescue work to those who are trained, equipped, and certified to conduct rescues. If you have operations that take place in permit-required confined spaces, you may want your emergency action plan to include rescue procedures that specifically address entry into each confined space. (See also OSHA Publication 3138, Permit-Required Confined Spaces, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication 80-106, Criteria for a Recommended Standard... Working in Confined Spaces.)

First Aid

If your company does not have a formal medical program, you may want to investigate ways to provide medical and first-aid services. If medical facilities are available near your work site, you can make arrangements for them to handle emergency cases. Provide your employees with a written emergency medical procedure to minimize confusion during an emergency.

First Aid - Emergency Responders

If an infirmary, clinic, or hospital is not close to your workplace, ensure that onsite person(s) have adequate training in first aid. The American Red Cross, some insurance providers, local safety councils, fire departments, or other resources may be able to provide this training. Treatment of a serious injury should begin within 3 to 4 minutes of the accident.

Consult with a physician to order appropriate first-aid supplies for emergencies. Medical personnel must be accessible to provide advice and consultation in resolving health problems that occur in the workplace. Establish a relationship with a local ambulance service so transportation is readily available for emergencies.

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. When you include your employees in your planning, encourage them to offer suggestions about potential hazards, worst-case scenarios, and proper emergency responses.

After you develop the plan, review it with your employees to make sure everyone knows what to do before, during and after an emergency. Keep a copy of your emergency action plan in a convenient location where employees can get to it, or provide all employees a copy. If you have 10 or fewer employees, you may communicate your plan orally.

What employee information should your plan include?

In the event of an emergency, it could be important to have ready access to important personal information about your employees. This includes their home telephone numbers, the names and telephone numbers of their next of kin, and medical information.

What type of training do your employees need?

Educate your employees about the types of emergencies that may occur and train them in the proper course of action. The size of your workplace and workforce, processes used, materials handled, and the availability of onsite or outside resources will determine your training requirements. Be sure all your employees understand the function and elements of your emergency action plan, including types of potential emergencies, reporting procedures, alarm systems, evacuation plans, and shutdown procedures. Discuss any special hazards you may have onsite such as flammable materials, toxic chemicals, radioactive sources, or water-reactive substances. Clearly communicate to your employees who will be in charge during an emergency to minimize confusion.

General training for your employees should address the following:

  • 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

You also may wish to train your employees in first-aid procedures, including protection against blood borne pathogens; respiratory protection, including use of an escape-only respirator; and methods for preventing unauthorized access to the site.

Once you have reviewed your emergency action plan with your employees and everyone has had the proper training, it is a good idea to hold practice drills as often as necessary to keep employees prepared. Include outside resources such as fire and police departments when possible. After each drill, gather management and employees to evaluate the effectiveness of the drill. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your plan and work to improve it.

Review your plan with all your employees and consider requiring annual training in the plan. Also offer training when you do the following:

  • Develop your initial plan
  • Hire new employees
  • Introduce new equipment, materials, or processes into the workplace that affect evacuation routes
  • Change the layout or design of the facility
  • Revise or update your emergency procedures

What does your plan need to include about hazardous substances?

No matter what kind of business you run, you could potentially face an emergency involving hazardous materials such as flammable, explosive, toxic, noxious, corrosive, biological, oxidizable, or radioactive substances. The source of the hazardous substances could be external, such as a local chemical plant that catches on fire or an oil truck that overturns on a nearby freeway. The source may be within your physical plant. Regardless of the source, these events could have a direct impact on your employees and your business and should be addressed by your emergency action plan.

If you use or store hazardous substances at your work site, you face an increased risk of an emergency involving hazardous materials and should address this possibility in your emergency action plan. OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) requires employers who use hazardous chemicals to inventory them, keep the manufacturer-supplied Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for them in a place accessible to workers, label containers of these chemicals with their hazards, and train employees in ways to protect themselves against those hazards. A good way to start is to determine from your hazardous chemical inventory what hazardous chemicals you use and to gather the MSDSs for the chemicals.

MSDSs describe the hazards that a chemical may present, list the precautions to take when handling, storing, or using the substance, and outline emergency and first-aid procedures. For specific information on how to respond to emergencies involving hazardous materials and hazardous waste operations, refer to 29 CFR, Part 1910.120(q) and OSHA Publication 3114, Hazardous Waste and Emergency Response Operations. Both are available online at www.osha.gov.

What special equipment should you provide for emergencies?

Your employees may need to use personal protective equipment (PPE) to evacuate during an emergency. The personal protective equipment that is provided must be based on the potential hazards in your workplace. Evaluate your workplace to determine potential hazards, the appropriate controls, and the protective equipment for those hazards. Personal protective equipment may include items such as the following:

  • Safety glasses, goggles, or face shields for eye protection
  • Hard hats and safety shoes for head and foot protection
  • Proper respirators
  • Chemical suits, gloves, hoods, and boots for body protection from chemicals
  • Special body protection for abnormal environmental conditions such as extreme temperatures
  • Any other special equipment or warning devices necessary for hazards unique to your work site

How do you choose appropriate respirators and other equipment?

Consult with health and safety professionals before making any purchases. Respirators selected should be appropriate to the hazards in your workplace, meet OSHA standards criteria, and be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Respiratory protection may be necessary if your employees must pass through toxic atmospheres of dust, mists, gases, or vapors, or through oxygen-deficient areas while evacuating. There are four basic categories of respirators for use in different conditions. All respirators must be NIOSH-certified under the current 29 CFR 1910.134. See also OSHA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide for Respiratory Protection, 1999, online at www.osha.gov.

Who should you coordinate with when drafting your emergency action plan?

Although there is no specific OSHA requirement to do so, you may find it useful to coordinate your efforts with any other companies or employee groups in your building to ensure the effectiveness of your plan. In addition, if you rely on assistance from local emergency responders such as the fire department, local HAZMAT teams, or other outside responders, you may find it useful to coordinate your emergency plans with these organizations. This ensures that you are aware of the capabilities of these outside responders and that they know what you expect of them.

This article is based on the OSHA booklet available at: http://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3088.pdf. This information is provided here as a service for our customers. We are not responsible for the content of this booklet, nor for the above. Please use the above link to directly read the OSHA booklet. The content of the booklet and other information on the OSHA web site is subject to change. This web site may not reflect those changes.

The information presented in this document was obtained from sources that we deem reliable; Graphic Products does not guarantee accuracy or completeness. Graphic Products, Inc. makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied. Users of this document should consult municipal, state, and federal code and/or verify all information with the appropriate regulatory agency.

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