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The purpose of an emergency action plan (EOP) is to facilitate and organize employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies. Well developed emergency plans and proper training (such that everyone understand their roles and responsibilities within the plan) will result in fewer and less severe injuries and less structural damage to the facility during emergencies. A poorly prepared plan, likely will lead to a disorganized evacuation or emergency response, resulting in confusion, injury, and property damage.

Putting together a comprehensive emergency action plan that deals with those issues specific to your worksite is not difficult. It involves taking what was learned from your workplace evaluation and describing how employees will respond to different types of emergencies, taking into account your specific worksite layout, structural features, and emergency systems. Most organizations find it beneficial to include a diverse group of representatives (management and employees) in this planning process and to meet frequently to review progress and allocate development tasks. The commitment and support of all employees is critical to the plan's success in the event of an emergency; ask for their help in establishing and implementing your emergency action plan. For smaller organizations, the plan does not need to be written and may be communicated orally if there are 10 or fewer employees [29 CFR 1910.38(b)].

At a minimum, the plan must include but is not limited to the following elements [29 CFR 1910.38(c)]:

Although they are not specifically required by OSHA, you may find it helpful to include the following in your plan:

  • A description of the alarm system to be used to notify employees (including disabled employees) to evacuate and/or take other actions. The alarms used for different actions should be distinctive and might include horn blasts, sirens, or even public address systems. [More on Alarms]
  • The site of an alternative communications center to be used in the event of a fire or explosion; and
  • A secure on- or offsite location to store originals or duplicate copies of accounting records, legal documents, your employees' emergency contact lists, and other essential records.

Now that you have read through the basic overview of an emergency action plan, find out how to implement your plan.

Elements of a good emergency evacuation floor plan are:

Designate Primary & Secondary Exits
No Emergency Exits in Restrooms
Exit Away From Rooms with Hazardous Materials
No Emergency Exits into Narrow Passages
Exit Signs Indicating the Nearest Emergency Exit
Designate an Assembly Area
No Use of Elevators to Reach an Emergency Exit
Indicate Exits with Wheelchair Access
Indicate the Employee's Current Location

Mistake #1: Not Communicating About Roles in an Emergency

Remember the old Abbott and Costello routine about “who’s on first?” Often, facility managers and their tenants encounter the same type of communication breakdown – only the result isn’t funny. Both parties can make very dangerous assumptions about who is responsible for managing an evacuation. This disconnect can cause confusion and panic in an emergency. You could have the wrong people giving people the wrong directions, or even multiple people giving conflicting directions. This can cause either a stampede of confused and frightened people or it can cause people to hesitate, losing the window of opportunity they need to escape harm.

You may be surprised by the erroneous assumptions both facility managers and tenants may make. For example, I once encountered a client who assumed the building management staff would help evacuate handicapped employees. The facility manager, on the other hand, assumed his job stopped at providing the appropriate equipment for handicapped tenants on the stairways and the tenant would actually assist the person down the stairs.

Recommendation: Start a dialogue! Communication between facility managers and tenants is critical. Facility managers should explain to their tenants how they will manage such events. Tenants need to discuss their assumptions about evacuation with their facility manager.

Mistake #2: Not Identifying the Real Risks

Every facility is unique. In putting together an evacuation plan, you need to know more than simply where the exits are located. A building’s size, tenant makeup, visitor makeup, location, security needs, community infrastructure and the type/timing of a disaster all impact how you should design your evacuation plan. For example, sending people out into severe weather could cause an even greater loss of life or injury than sheltering them in a protected part of the building. Similarly, if the building faces a biological threat, the last thing you want to do is to evacuate your tenants. You need to keep them safe inside the building until the emergency response team tells you how to proceed.

Recommendation: Create a joint emergency response team for the building. Get the facility manager, tenants, security staff, local emergency response and experts in crisis management to develop this team. Then, the team can develop evacuation procedures for multiple scenarios and educate everyone involved on those procedures.

Mistake #3: Not Knowing Your Audience

A friend and colleague was proudly showing me his building one day, highlighting all the new signs he had just installed explaining the facility’s evacuation procedures. There were several problems with the implementation, the biggest being that the signs were only in English. Since this was a major downtown building with a food court and retail stores, about 40 percent of the employees and customers did not speak English.

Recommendation: Take a good, hard look at who uses your building. For example, are there patients visiting medical offices for treatment, day care centers, high security areas, government offices, high profile targets, large tour groups or visitor populations? A museum that has a thousand children visiting each day needs to understand how those kids would react to an emergency evacuation. Talk to each tenant and ask what barriers there may be to employees and visitors evacuating safely.

Mistake # 4: Not Finding the Right “Muster Area”

Both facility managers and contingency planners define “muster areas” for evacuees to gather. This is a great idea. It helps emergency responders determine who may still be trapped within the facility. The problem is most muster areas are totally inappropriate for that function. One facility manager took me out to his parking lot and showed me how he had placed department / tenant names on every lamp post. The theory was everyone exiting the building would find their lamp post and the facility’s team could safely do head counts. Unfortunately, he did not take the needs of the emergency response teams into account, nor the fact the extreme cold in the winter would make this an impossible area to use during evacuations. You can’t ask people with no coats, keys, wallets or purses to stand outside in bad weather.

Another problem is when multiple tenants decide to use the same small internal area to muster their employees. Facility managers often fail to take into account the amount of outside traffic that may choose to seek shelter within their facility, thereby putting an additional strain on already inadequate resources.

Recommendation: Facility managers, tenants and emergency response personnel need to jointly develop plans to direct people to safe muster areas. You may need to establish a combination of internal and external areas where everyone can meet safely. You may want to preposition portable structures that can be setup quickly.

The Bottom Line

Once you have developed your emergency evacuation plans, don’t forget to test them. Start with desktop walkthroughs, and then perform actual drills. Develop scenarios for different types of disasters. Solicit feedback from participants in these drills. Make sure you provide a detailed report on what worked and needs improvement to both your tenants and the emergency response teams.

Also, develop an awareness program for both tenants and visitors to your building so everyone has the correct information. I once visited a building where they gave every visitor a small card telling them what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency – a smart idea.

Here is a checklist to help get you started:

  • Create a formal project (get all interested parties involved).
  • Develop an event management strategy that defines roles and responsibilities.
  • Develop an event management team to monitor events as they unfold and actually manage the actual evacuation.
  • Conduct safety and security audits on a regular basis (at least twice a year).
  • Conduct an infrastructure audit to identify risks with the building and the surrounding location (at least once a year).
  • Develop evacuation plans and coordinate them with your tenants.
  • Create an awareness/training program for everyone who will be involved in the evacuation.
  • Create an exercise and status reporting strategy. Include all the most likely disaster scenarios.
  • Conduct evacuation exercises (desktop at lease twice a year and actual drills at least once a year).

Having truly effective evacuation plans is one of the most important tasks you can do to protect the health and lives of your tenants and employees. It’s up to you to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes time to evacuate.

This article was published in the Disaster Resource GUIDE for Facilities (Fall 2006).