Office hazards Injury prevention

Shaky ground, solid culture

Preparing your workplace for an earthquake

  • Help workers develop a crisis-resilient mindset by talking through scenarios in "crisis micro-games."
  • During an earthquake, drop to the ground take cover under a piece of furniture and hold on.
  • Expect aftershocks, and be careful cleaning up spilled materials. 

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

At first, Luke George thought the vibration in his office building was triggered by someone working on the roof. Within 30 seconds, George, senior government relations manager at the National Safety Council, realized the force shaking his office building in Washington, D.C., was coming from below, not above.

The magnitude-5.8 earthquake struck on the afternoon of Aug. 23, 2011. Centered in Virginia, the event sent workers along the East Coast streaming into the streets.

George said that although his office’s safety manual addressed earthquakes, employees had practiced for just about every emergency situation except that one. After all, who would expect an earthquake to occur in the nation’s capital?

After the earthquake, NSC reviewed its response and took steps to update its safety procedures. Given that earthquakes are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, employers should prepare employees regardless of their building’s location.

Preparing your workforce

FEMA has been spreading the message that earthquakes can happen anywhere. In February, the agency and other groups hosted the “Great Central U.S. ShakeOut,” an earthquake drill coordinated across nine states. Participants – including staff at the National Safety Council’s headquarters in Itasca, IL – practiced “drop, cover and hold on,” in which employees dropped to the ground, took cover under a sturdy piece of furniture, and held on until the “shaking” stopped.

The same actions should be repeated during periodic earthquake drills at your organization. FEMA advises employers to ensure employees receive training in the use of fire extinguishers and CPR. Also, employers should remind employees to keep an emergency kit at home and at work.

For the safety and survival of your business, integrate earthquakes into emergency and recovery planning.

According to the booklet 7 Steps to an Earthquake Resilient Business, produced by groups including the Earthquake Country Alliance in California, start by surveying your facility for potential hazards, such as shelves that could fall and block an exit and materials that pose a fire risk. Take steps to mitigate the hazards, such as storing heavy items on lower shelves and not stacking boxes near exits, the guide states. Non-structural objects can be anchored, braced or reinforced to help keep them stable during an earthquake.

The guide also recommends organizing assets in the categories of people, building, equipment, data, inventory/products, and operations, and protecting them based on priority. To help prevent loss of important files, back up files and store them offsite in case computers are lost in an earthquake. Consider establishing an alternate site or make other plans for how business operations will continue if an earthquake leaves the workplace uninhabitable.

Additionally, FEMA said to check with the local building regulatory agency about seismic design provisions and address structural weaknesses.

During a quake

More information
For methods to mitigating earthquake hazards, download "Reducing the Risks of Nonstructural Damage."

Darryl Madden, director of FEMA’s “Ready” campaign for emergency awareness, cautioned against trying to evacuate a building during an earthquake.

 “You’re actually more at risk for getting hurt from falling debris if you evacuate the building. The safest thing to do is actually drop, cover and hold on,” he said.

Falling objects, flying glass and collapsing walls cause most earthquake-related fatalities, so avoid windows, outer doors and walls, and unstable furniture, FEMA advises.

A common belief is that the safest place to stand during an earthquake is in a doorway. However, the California Department of Conservation said that belief does not apply to modern structures because doorways are no stronger than the rest of the building. In fact, standing in a doorway puts you at risk for being hit by a swinging door or trampled by people rushing out the door.

For other earthquake scenarios, FEMA offers the following advice:

  • Outside: Move away from buildings, streetlights and utility wires. Do not stand directly outside exits or exterior walls, which may collapse.
  • On the road: Pull over – staying away from buildings, trees, overpasses and utility wires – but remain in your vehicle. When you begin driving again, watch for non-functioning traffic lights and damaged roads and bridges.
  • Trapped under debris: Do not light a match to increase visibility. Cover your mouth with clothing to avoid breathing in dust, and only shout as a last resort. Instead, tap on a wall or pipe so rescuers can find you.


When the earthquake stops, employees should carefully exit the building according to the organization’s emergency evacuation plan, which should specify where to gather. Be on the lookout for hazards such as broken glass, as well as injured co-workers in need of assistance.

As for how long employees should wait to re-enter the building, “There are no absolutes,” Madden said. “If you think the building has suffered structural damage, don’t go in.”

He advised waiting for a facility manager or other expert to assess the building and provide clearance to return. Along with structural instability, fire is a major concern. Earthquakes can damage utilities, causing gas leaks or other hazards.

Expect aftershocks, which FEMA said may continue for days or even months after the initial earthquake. When aftershocks hit, be sure to drop, cover and hold on again.

After an earthquake, phones should be used only for emergency calls because lines likely will be tied up. Be careful cleaning up spilled materials and opening cabinets, as objects may have shifted during the shaking, FEMA warns.

The agency also emphasizes the importance of learning from the experience. If repairs are needed, use that as an opportunity to address structural deficiencies. If employees were unprepared, conduct drills and training more frequently.


A key part of preparation is training workers to respond appropriately. At the University of California, San Diego, Phillip Van Saun, director of continuity and emergency services, facilitates that process through brainstorming sessions he calls “crisis micro-games.”

During the sessions, workers talk about how they would respond to a scenario, such as a wildfire or earthquake. He described the games as similar to drills; however, the point is not to recite the plan, but rather to set the plan aside and consider unexpected situations. Van Saun considers plans “necessary but not sufficient.” Workers should “assume planning instructions are valid, but that they might be challenged by the event and prove not adequate,” he said.

He believes many people have become so dependent on systems working properly that they do not think about what could go wrong. For example, an earthquake could knock out electricity, gas or telephone lines, requiring a change in plans. That step of anticipating failure is core to crisis micro-games.

“I’ve seen a false sense of security develop based on the assumption of success and overreliance on elaborate and detailed planning, when in fact in most crisis events, it’s very difficult to pull off a complicated maneuver,” Van Saun said. Instead, a more reasonable expectation is for employees to follow a simple checklist of essential actions.

Van Saun explained that crisis micro-games can lead to moments of realization. “You don’t want to learn these lessons in the midst of the crisis,” he said.

In Van Saun’s experience, talking through disaster scenarios helps workers develop a more crisis-resilient mindset and approach. Change does not happen immediately, however. “It takes time; culture is more difficult to change than procedure,” he said.

The payoff is having employees who function well when faced with emergencies. As Van Saun put it, “The real mitigation here is culture.”

Madden knows firsthand that practice saves lives. He recalled that when a strong aftershock hit while he was in Haiti in January 2010, he instinctively moved into a protective position.

“If you at least have thought about these types of circumstances, your body has a tendency to react quicker,” Madden said. “Just think about what you’re going to do; think about what resources are available to you.”

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