Emergency exit

Planning for the unexpected

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

  • Choose someone who is calm under pressure and has thorough knowledge of the building and evacuation procedures to lead the emergency response team.
  • Understanding how people typically respond to disasters helps ensure accuracy in planning.
  • Develop and practice a specific plan to evacuate disabled workers. Do not leave them in the building to wait for help to arrive.

Most people do not go to work thinking “Today is the day something awful will happen.”

Yet the potential for a natural disaster, fire, bomb threat, power outage, gas leak, chemical spill or even terrorist attack is always present. How employees react to such threats could mean the difference between life and death, not to mention loss of property for the organization.

If a workplace has fire extinguishers, and people will be evacuating during an emergency, OSHA requires the organization to have an emergency action plan. Employers with more than 10 employees must have a written plan; those with fewer can communicate the plan orally. Despite the requirement, experts say many employers fail to adequately prepare.

“The bottom line is a majority of workplaces have never actually formally developed a safety plan, nor have they exercised it,” said Brock Long, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency in Clanton. “A lot of times what we see is if they have developed safety plans, the plans have been created in a vacuum and the majority of staff [has] not been trained.”

Elements of a plan

OSHA requires the emergency action plan to include:

  • A means of reporting fires and other emergencies
  • Evacuation procedures and emergency escape route assignments
  • Directions for employees who stay to operate critical operations
  • A procedure to account for all employees after emergency evacuation
  • Rescue and medical duties for employees
  • Names or job titles of employees to be contacted for information on the plan

Employers also should maintain an alarm system to notify employees, designate and train people to assist during an evacuation, and review the plan with each employee.

Instead of copying an emergency plan from another organization (which Long said he has seen people do), employers should develop a plan specific to their building and adaptable to different situations. Long recommended conducting a risk and vulnerability assessment that addresses issues such as severe weather and proximity to major highways where hazardous material spills are possible. Also, be aware of potential hazards in neighboring facilities.

Other key issues to consider are visitors and population density. Identify high-traffic areas at different times of the day – when are workers most likely to be in a conference room or sitting at their desks?

Along with an exit plan, draft a plan for staying put. “One of the mistakes that is often made is we’re very quick to evacuate when sheltering in place may be a better option,” Long said. Consult local authorities for help in making that decision.

Climate of preparedness

As part of a three-year study of the evacuation of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, two teams composed of evacuees, study investigators and expert consultants identified risk factors and recommendations for safer and faster evacuation of high-rise buildings.

The study, led by researchers at Columbia University in New York, was published in 2008 in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness (Vol. 2, No. 3). Researchers found evacuation initiation was delayed by “milling-about” behaviors such as employees seeking out information and looking for leadership. Older individuals and people with disabilities or pre-existing medical conditions hesitated out of concern about their physical ability to descend the stairs. And during the evacuation, many women cut their feet on glass when they removed their shoes out of discomfort.

The teams developed dozens of practical suggestions, such as individuals should keep comfortable shoes by or in their desks and employers should place emergency supplies throughout the building and ensure doors to floors off of stairwells unlock during an emergency.

A key recommendation was for a workplace climate of emergency preparedness, defined as “employees’ collective perception of management’s commitment to emergency preparedness.”

That sentiment was echoed by Steven Crimando, managing director of Extreme Behavioral Risk Management, a New York-based firm specializing in crisis management and training. He said the mentality has to saturate the workforce. All employees should know what is expected of them, even if their role is simply to follow directions. After all, if one person does not understand the plan, he or she could create a real problem during an emergency.

“Employers typically put together plans,” Crimando said, “so at the onset of the planning process you want to try and get a degree of inclusion and buy-in from the workforce – that they feel like they’re part of it, that they’re represented.”

Employers can demonstrate their commitment to preparedness by using mitigation techniques, Long said. For example, tell workers to back up critical files and do not store important papers in a basement vulnerable to flooding. “The culture of preparedness starts with the executive leadership,” he said. “If it’s broken at the top, it will be broken all the way through.”  

Choosing leaders

An organized response hinges on a strong team to execute the plan. In contrast to a safety committee, which is designed to reduce accidents on the job and monitor day-to-day issues, an emergency response team has a broader mandate that may include crisis communication and business continuity. Team members are responsible for creating, updating and overseeing training and practicing of the plan.

Select a coordinator (and backup) for the team who possesses the three C’s: calmness, communication skills and credibility, Crimando said. Being able to remain calm also is an important quality for team members. As Long put it: “If they can’t handle high-pressure situations in their daily life, don’t put them on the safety team.”

A successful coordinator must have strong knowledge of the plan, building mechanics and structure, alarms, heating and air-conditioning systems, and hazardous chemicals on-site, according to Rick Vulpitta, Chicago regional safety manager for Comcast and author of the National Safety Council’s “On-Site Emergency Response Planning Guide.”

Long stressed that an emergency team should have the authority to implement a plan immediately in a serious situation; otherwise, precious time could be lost waiting for approval from upper management. He also warned that team members should be careful not to become victims. “Do what you can do to get people to heed the warning and get out of the building and do not put yourself in harm’s way,” he said.

No employee left behind

During an evacuation, people sometimes tell disabled workers to wait inside for help to arrive. Allan B. Fraser, senior building code specialist for the Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association, said the thinking is, “We got them to the stairwell; the first responders will get them.” However, first responders may not even know they are there.

Fraser noted any employee could need help on a given day – someone who has a heart condition or a broken leg and is not functioning 100 percent. “You may be part of that disabled group tomorrow morning,” he said. “Do you want to be left in a building?”

He recommended employers formulate a plan during a consultation with the disabled worker and other appropriate staff, such as a supervisor and co-worker who has volunteered to help. “The person with the disability knows 99 percent of the time how best to help them. You have to ask them,” Fraser said.  

Practice will help bring to light overlooked issues. For example, if a wheelchair-bound employee is carried down the stairs or placed in an evacuation chair, that gets the person to the first floor … now what? The employee’s wheelchair is still upstairs. Fraser advised keeping a wheelchair on the first floor for such instances.

He noted that the quality of evacuation chairs, which are lightweight wheelchairs designed to transport a disabled person out of danger, varies widely. Some are quite good, he said, while others are “basically a chair with a seat belt on it.” Transferring someone in and out of the chair is not easy and takes practice to master, he added.

Understanding the human response

Planners often assume people will follow directions in a crisis, but research suggests that may not always be the case. A 2004 study released by the New York Academy of Medicine, “Redefining Readiness: Terrorism Planning Through the Eyes of the Public,” examined how Americans would respond to directions from officials in the event of a smallpox outbreak and a dirty bomb explosion. Based on a telephone survey of some 2,500 adults, researchers concluded that in the first scenario, most people (57 percent) would not automatically follow instructions to go to the vaccination site, mainly because they would need more information to make a decision. In the second case, 59 percent of respondents indicated they would stay indoors for as long as officials told them. Researchers found one reason people would be reluctant to comply was concern about something other than what officials were trying to protect them from, such as vaccine safety or whether or not their loved ones were safe.

Crimando pointed to the study as evidence that planners need to understand how people will actually respond to develop effective strategies for emergencies. Practicing a plan based on flawed logic will produce flawed results. “Honestly, practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect,” he said.

Crimando described three general behavioral responses to a crisis. The common response is type one: Neighbor Helps Neighbor. “People don’t panic. People are cooperative. They listen to instructions. They are altruistic; they look for ways to help each other,” he said.

As fear escalates, people may manifest another type of response: Neighbor Fears Neighbor. This often occurs with disease outbreaks or cases of bioterrorism, where a person is afraid he or she might get sick while helping others.

The worst case, Neighbor Competes With Neighbor, happens when fear is at such a high level that it provokes panic. Crimando said this is more likely when there is a perception of limited opportunity for escape and limited availability of supplies, such as with The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI, in 2003 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He noted human response is hazard-specific; the response to a natural disaster may not be anything like the response to a terrorist attack. Human response also is time-specific and may change as hours pass. The psychological response to a crisis can outweigh the medical or physical consequences.

Drills provide learning opportunity

Experts agree that lack of rehearsal is one of the biggest barriers to a successful workplace evacuation. OSHA recommends conducting an evacuation drill at least once a year. Vulpitta said employers should ask the fire department to observe and use practices to work out glitches in the plan. Try different situations, such as blocking a stairwell and directing people to use a different one.

Long noted employees often hear a fire alarm and continue to work at their desks. They must be taught to treat drills like real emergencies, which means not locking doors or taking personal items, he said.

According to Crimando, drills counteract the natural human tendency to downplay risk. “You need to do what we’re talking about – having plans, doing exercises and drills – to counteract those natural human tendencies and keep those safety and survival instincts fresh and alive,” he said.

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