The Seven Elements of Successful Emergency Action Planning

by Alison Montgomery, API Safety Advisor
Safety Management Group

For most of us, our familiarity with emergency evacuations goes all the way back to childhood. When the school’s fire alarm sounded, we lined up and moved outside in an orderly fashion as the teacher kept an eye on everyone. We may not have understood why the school sent us out into the cold every month or so, but the teachers and principal did. If a real emergency situation occurred, the procedure of getting to a place of safety would have been well-ingrained.

That basic philosophy is just as important on construction sites and in industrial locations in which emergency situations could put workers in harm’s way. What do you do when a welder’s torch sets off a fire in a renovation project? How should workers at a construction site react when the sky takes on the greenish cast that suggests a tornado may be developing? What happens if a noxious chemical is released in an office building?

Anticipating and preparing for scenarios such as those is the motivation behind developing emergency action plans. While no two plans are alike – after all, each site is unique, with a unique set of hazards – the seven steps outlined here will give you a solid framework with which to begin.

1. Consider the situations. The first step in developing an effective emergency action plan is to consider the types of emergencies that could occur on the site. That might include fire, explosion, and severe weather. On some sites, accidental releases of chemicals should be considered – and plans for particularly sensitive sites may even want to address terrorist activity. Don’t limit your planning to your own site, because your neighbors may also create hazards. For example, if there’s an incident at a nearby chemical plant, your site may be impacted. Consider how such situations may be made even more hazardous by factors such as power failures, too.

2. Determine the correct actions. Once you’ve identified the types of emergencies that may occur, determine the actions you want workers to take in each of them. It’s not quite as simple as saying that workers should “get out” if there is an emergency. How will they leave? Where should they go? Should they report to someone? Will an evacuation in one part of the site create problems in neighboring areas?

3. Create rally points. If you haven’t already designated rally points–the safe locations at which workers should meet after being evacuated–you’ll want to do so immediately. In fact, you should also create an alternate rally point in case conditions make the first location unsafe (such as a wind shift that brings a chemical release to the original rally point). It’s also important to provide more one than one route to the rally point, in case the normal route is blocked by fire, debris, or anything else that may be unsafe.

In an industrial or commercial facility, rally points are usually stationary. But on a construction site, they may change along with the work being performed. That makes keeping workers informed about the current location a critical part of your emergency plan.

4. Verify safe routes. Having rally points isn’t helpful if the workers can’t reach them, or face potential injuries along the way. Check the routes frequently to ensure that obstructions haven’t appeared, and that areas around stairwells and excavations remain safe. It’s also a good idea to make sure that workers know not to leave equipment in places that may block a safe exit. Even if they set something down for just 15 minutes to take a break, it may create a hazard if an evacuation occurs during that time.

5. Account for everyone. You need to be able to verify that everyone who is on the site has been evacuated. In locations that use access badges or proximity cards, it may simply be a matter of placing badge stations at each of the rally points, so workers can check in. Whatever type of system you use, be sure that it accounts for workers who may be absent or have left early, so emergency responders do not risk their lives in an effort to rescue someone who isn’t there. You may even want to develop something similar to a “buddy system,” in which pairs of workers are responsible for knowing each other’s whereabouts.

6. Drill (or not). Earlier, we mentioned fire drills, which are still required at schools. Does it make sense to hold evacuation drills at a worksite? As with so many issues, it depends. While there’s no question that there is value in creating an automatic response to potentially dangerous situations, drills may not be the best way to accomplish that. For one thing, it’s difficult to interrupt a busy site and create downtime while workers get back into place. On many sites, secrets are hard to keep, and workers may be unnaturally prepared for the drill – even arriving at the rally point before the alarm sounds. In addition, a drill in one part of a building or worksite may create confusion or panic among workers in adjacent sites.

Whether a regular drill is the best approach depends on the specific site and composition of the workforce. One alternate approach is to meet with small groups of workers to review evacuation procedures and bring them to the rally point. That way, you can explain why evacuation might be necessary, why the workers should comply with the order, and help them understand the importance of being able to verify that everyone is in a safe location. It’s also a good opportunity to remind them of fire extinguisher locations, how to sound an alarm, and related information. This is particularly important if you have employees who don’t use English as their primary language. It’s critical that these employees be familiar with the appropriate procedures and have access to signage that is in a language they can comprehend.

7. Keep reviewing. Buildings and worksites rarely stay the same for long, and each change may affect your plans for the right actions to take during emergencies. That’s why it’s a good idea to review your plan regularly, depending on how often changes take place. You hope you’ll never see your plan put to the test, but if it ever has to be, you want to be confident that it will work exactly as you designed it to do.

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