Nowhere is the need to be ready for any kind of emergency more crucial than in the workplace. Many who are injured or die in natural or man-made disasters are on the job when catastrophe strikes. Since the next disasters are not a matter of if, but when, companies need to integrate emergency response as a key component of their strategic operational planning. Preparing for the unexpected can not only help protect workers and reduce the rate of injury and death, but also significantly ease the financial impact of disasters and their aftermath.
Anyone looking for proof of the potential catastrophic costs of not planning for disaster need look no further than the current status of BP in the wake of the largest oil spill in history. The price tag for the ongoing attempts at containment and the massive clean-up operations are reaching untold billions. BP is settling hundreds of claims each month and facing major lawsuits from government agencies and local industries to compensate for lost work and revenue.
Disaster Preparation Phases
The process of preparing a company for the next disaster involves several key components, including hazard assessment, a written emergency action plan, and multi-level disaster site training. Folded into these components are a careful evaluation of facilities and a review of the appropriate types of equipment and supplies needed for an effective emergency response.
Emergency preparedness planning begins with assessing the kinds of worksite disasters most likely to occur and identifying their associated potential hazards. Focused attention on recognizing the full range of possible disasters and the worst case scenario of each increases the likelihood of a more effective response. Questions exploring the scope and nature of the response should be weighed and answered. A thorough hazard assessment lays a solid foundation for planning and decision-making that could affect the life and death of employees, and possibly the health and survival of the company.
A written Emergency Action Plan is developed from the worksite hazard assessment and incorporates a comprehensive approach to disaster response, including the following elements:
• Establishment of an Incident Command Structure (ICS), which assigns responsibility for an integrated response to an individual or group charged with setting immediate priorities, determining objectives, ensuring adequate health and safety measures are in place, coordinating the activities of internal (employees) and external (firefighters, law enforcement, etc.) responders, managing resources, and monitoring the Emergency Action Plan implementation.
• Identification of the roles and responsibilities of onsite personnel, including assignment of specific tasks, such as evacuation by departments and notification of employee emergency contacts.
• Development and monitoring of ongoing emergency preparation, including regular updates of employee emergency phone numbers, inventory of first aid supplies, and maintenance of equipment such as respirators.
An Emergency Action Plan is not static, but rather a living document that requires regular updates based on the latest disaster response research, as well as the experience provided by actual incidents.
Disaster Site Worker Training
Central to any emergency action planning is the provision for well-trained workers who are fully prepared to respond quickly and effectively to a wide range of potential natural or man-made disasters. On-site workers need to develop an awareness of safety and health hazards that may be encountered and to recognize their responsibility to make decisions and choices that will affect their personal health and safety and that of their co-workers, and possibly the general public.
Companies should take a multi-level approach to disaster preparedness training. It is strongly recommended that one or more key personnel receive training from an authorized Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) disaster-site trainer. OSHA Training Centers throughout the US provide authorized Disaster Site Worker courses, and some centers offer the option of on-site training.
OSHA-authorized training covers basic areas of disaster response and also addresses response to more catastrophic events, such as recognition of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) agents as well as accompanying symptoms; awareness of the effects and techniques for managing traumatic incident stress; and the causes and simple methods of decontamination.
Additional personnel should receive, at minimum, an overview of the Emergency Action Plan and enough training to fully understand their individual roles in emergency response and how those roles fit into the larger picture.
Coordination between internal disaster-site workers and external first responders such as fire and law enforcement is critical to the effectiveness of emergency response. Since internal disaster site personnel should be fully prepared to work closely with external first responders, it is advisable to conduct practice drills so that all responders know how to work as an integrated team.
Evaluation of the Facility
Integral to effective disaster response is a thorough knowledge of the physical layout and key characteristics of the facility. Examples include:
• Location of electrical and natural gas sources and designation of personnel to quickly handle their shut down can be critical in reducing or preventing additional catastrophe by explosion and/or fire.
• Alternate power sources such as generators and portable heaters should be regularly maintained and monitored during an emergency to ensure these backup sources don’t themselves become hazards.
• If the facility is located near overhead power lines, someone should be trained to check for damaged or downed lines.
• The location and properties of any chemicals or other potentially toxic materials stored on the premises are very important in determining the type of response and equipment needed to mitigate possible hazards.
Companies with large campuses or multiple locations should designate personnel at each separate facility to mount a coordinated disaster response.
Emergency Response Equipment and Supplies
Maintaining an adequate inventory of appropriate equipment and supplies, and training workers in their proper use and application can often reduce the magnitude of collateral damage at a disaster site. Respirators are often critical components of employee protection, and it is strongly recommended that key disaster site workers be trained to inspect, don and doff an air purifying respirator, and to check a respirator user seal.
A company’s hazard assessment and facility evaluation will influence the choice of additional personal protective equipment (PPE). Standard first aid supplies should be kept in abundant supply at all facilities for minor incidents as well as major disasters.
The unfortunate results of not being proactive with disaster planning and training have played out repeatedly in the last ten years – ranging from lack of control and coordination to total chaos, from death and destruction to financial collapse and ruin. Being prepared through assessment, planning and training seems like an obvious answer, but the question remains, is your company ready for the next disaster? Don’t wait until the disaster strikes to find out.
About the Author: Tommie Jones is a safety consultant and an OSHA-authorized outreach instructor and subject-matter expert for the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District’s OSHA Training Center, located in Dublin, CA. Previously, as the safety and occupational health manager for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), Defense Logistics Agency, Defense Distribution Depot San Joaquin he developed and taught safety and health classes for more than 28 years.