Workplace safety and health programs provide many benefits, such as increased productivity, improved employee morale, reduced absenteeism and illness, and reduced workers’ compensation rates. Unfortunately, incidents occur, and it is necessary to preplan a response for potential emergency situations.
Emergencies can happen at any time in any environment. When they occur at work, employees are at an added risk for injury and illness. As a result, employers must plan for and respond to these situations effectively.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Emergency Preparedness and Response guidance, “A workplace emergency is a situation that threatens workers, customers, or the public; disrupts or shuts down operations; or causes physical or environmental damage. Emergencies may be natural or man-made, and may include hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, winter weather, chemical spills or releases, disease outbreaks, releases of biological agents, explosions involving nuclear or radiological sources, and many other hazards.”
Workplace violence and active-shooter scenarios can qualify as workplace emergencies.
Employers need to prepare for different types of potential emergencies. OSHA 3122, Principal Emergency Response and Preparedness Requirements in OSHA Standards and Guidance for Safety and Health Problems, is a valuable resource for identifying and planning for an emergency. The National Fire Protection Association, American National Standards Institute, and other standards-setting organizations also provide recommendations and requirements.
The most comprehensive way to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses caused by emergency situations is to create a plan. According to OSHA, “An emergency action plan [EAP] is intended to facilitate and organize employer and worker actions during workplace emergencies and is recommended for all employers. Well-developed emergency plans and proper worker training (i.e., so that workers understand their roles and responsibilities within the plan) will result in fewer and less severe worker injuries and less damage to the facility during emergencies. A poorly prepared plan may lead to a disorganized evacuation or emergency response, resulting in confusion, injury, illness (due to chemical, biological and/or radiation exposure), and/or property damage.”
Although OSHA does not require an EAP for all employers, having one in place is highly recommended. Employers can visit www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/evacuation/need.html to determine if they are required to make a plan.
To create an effective EAP, employers must conduct a hazard assessment to identify physical or chemical hazards on or near the work site. The plan should provide workers with responsibilities when an incident occurs and factor in the work site layout, as well as any relevant structural information. Multiple job sites require multiple plans.
When creating an EAP, employers should consider including management, workers, local health departments and agencies, and public safety officials, as well as any pertinent federal, state or local government entities.
Employers required by OSHA to have an EAP include those that work with hazardous chemicals, fixed extinguishing, fire detection system, grain handling, ethylene oxide, methylenedianiline and butadiene. In addition, OSHA’s Fire Extinguisher Standard, 29 CFR 1910.157, requires an EAP to be in place if certain criteria are met.
The minimum EAP requirements for impacted businesses include a procedure for reporting fires and other emergencies; escape procedures and route assignments, such as floor plans, workplace maps, and safe or refuge areas; and procedures to account for all workers after an evacuation, such as designating an assembly location. Employers should ensure all employees are properly trained on action plans and emergency response.
Regardless of whether the employer has a plan, all employees should familiarize themselves with exit locations, evacuation routes and potential shelter-in-place locations. The same applies to workers off the job, too.
Employers can reference regulations addressing basic emergency planning requirements for different work environments in 29 CFR 1910 General Industry, 29 CFR 1926 Construction, and 29 CFR 1915, 1917, and 1918 Maritime. Specific emergency planning requirements for these environments are in 29 CFR 1910.38; 29 CFR 1926.35; Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) (29 CFR 1910.120(q)); Fire Brigades (29 CFR 1910.156); and Permit-Required Confined Spaces (29 CFR 1910.146(k), 29 CFR 1926.1211).