disaster struck arkema plant in crosby texas Scott Olson/Getty Images

When Disasters Strike: Planning and Preparing for Emergencies

Recent events worldwide – hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires – have everyone thinking about emergency response. Is your business prepared if disaster strikes?

A recent earthquake in Mexico claimed many lives and caused widespread damage. Hurricane Harvey raged through the Gulf Coast, affecting Texas, Louisiana and several countries in Central America, while Puerto Rico will spend months recovering from Hurricane Irma. California’s wine country has been devastated by wildfires.

While these events have taken a huge toll on the people living in the impacted areas, businesses in those areas also have been impacted.

In Crosby, Tex., following Hurricane Harvey, two explosions shook the Arkema chemical plant, which resulted in a powerful fire that sent plumes of black smoke into the air and caused the facility to flood. As a result of the flooding, the factory lost all power, including their backup generator.

Certain chemicals within the plant were required to be stored at a low temperature. However, without power, the organic peroxides stored inside warmed to dangerous temperatures and authorities had to create a 1.5-mile evacuation zone around the plant to protect its neighbors. 

This event had a huge effect on the community. Residents did not have access to their homes, some people lost their pets and most were worried about potential long-term effects the burning chemicals could have on their health.

Just the day before, Arkema Group had warned authorities of what would happen during such an incident, but there was nothing they could do to stop it. In a press conference, on Sept. 4, Arkema President and CEO Rich Rowe was asked what would happen if a storm like Harvey hit again. He answered that the company would “examine all the issues – the way we prepared and the decisions we made as we moved through the crisis.”

The lesson we can learn from this example is that even though Arkema was prepared with a backup generator, the crisis was not prevented.

Do You Have the RIGHT Plan?

In light of recent events worldwide, emergency preparedness is on everybody’s mind. All businesses are required to have an emergency response plan. Employers with 10 or more employees must have a written plan; those with less than 10 may share their plan orally with their team.  Regardless, it is important that all plans be updated frequently – and always reevaluated after such an event occurs.

These days, although most companies have an emergency response plan, they don’t always have it up to date or it is not relevant to all possible crises. It is essential to prepare for natural disasters known in your area, but also for known risks in your facility.

The first step, and the most challenging one, is to complete a very detailed risk assessment of the facility. It includes any risks at all levels of the company. Based on their location, companies can determine which natural disasters are likely to impact their business and then prepare for those specific disasters. It also is essential for companies to inventory their dangerous processes, such as chemical handling, chemical processing, heat treatment, etc., and create a specific response for each of the departments dealing with those processes.

Engage Employees in the Planning Process

The key to creating those risk assessments is to involve employees from the ground level up to the general manager. You want to convene a group of people who can imagine what could happen in the many different scenarios. They all will bring their knowledge and past experiences to help you prepare for an emergency.

Once the different risks have been determined, you then will need to rate them based on frequency, severity and the controls in place in the facility. This score will determine the significant risks on which you want to focus. It is important to remember that risk assessments are live documents; they are tools for businesses to use as they are making changes. It is extremely crucial to keep them updated regularly as they are the core of your disaster response program.

Once your risk assessments have been completed, it is time to create emergency response plans that adequately fit your needs. You can decide to consider all risks or medium and higher risks and create a response plan. The plan should be detailed and relevant to the business. Your plan should include:

  • Notification/communication procedures.
  • A detailed evacuation procedure that includes maps with exit routes and emergency shut down procedures.
  • A way to account for all employees.
  • Rescue and medical procedures.
  • A contact list of responsible personnel with their job title and description of their duties in case of an emergency.
  • Your implementation plan.

Map It Out and Train, Train, Train!

Businesses with critical processes also should include maps of where dangerous chemicals are stored and list potentially dangerous machines and their locations. It is relevant to detail high-risk processes you have on-site for the safety of the response team.

Emergency plans should be sent to external services, such as the fire department and/or your environmental emergency responder. A clear emergency response plan will save you a lot of time and questions during an emergency. One of the biggest mistakes is to have a great plan than no one knows about.

Training is key. There will be several levels of training depending on each role in the emergency response plan and everyone in the company should know and understand their role.  Some of the high-level positions will be filled by the executives on-site such as the general manager, maintenance manager or safety manager, while other positions will be filled by shop-floor workers. Emergency preparedness should be discussed throughout the year during safety meetings or production meetings.

It is necessary to regularly train your personnel on the plan. The more you practice, the more likely it is that employees will follow the plan should an emergency occur. Evacuation drills are imperative to test your plan and prepare employees for emergencies. You might even want to create several scenarios for your higher risks, such as an earthquake or chemical release.

Another vital part of your company’s emergency preparedness is having the proper equipment and signage for it. Keep it very visual! Pictures often speak louder than words. Each day, as people walk by these signs, the plan will reinforce itself and they will remember it should an emergency arise. At a minimum, there should be signage throughout your site for fire extinguishers, first aid kits/AEDs, emergency exit doors, spill kits, emergency eye wash stations and emergency showers.

Companies often struggle with the amount of detail and information that should be included in an emergency response plan. There are several web sites that propose checklists or help frame emergency response plans, such as the OSHA or the CDC web sites. Frequent audits can help you determine if your plan is effective and decide if more training might be required.

Whatever you do, don’t wait until an emergency occurs to determine if your plan is adequate and your employees are ready to respond. Review your emergency response plan today!

About the author: Cecile Felsher is a senior staff consultant for Alta Environmental, an environmental health and safety firm located in Long Beach, Calif. Felsher has over eight years of experience managing safety and environmental projects including implementation of safety programs to reduce risks, Cal/OSHA investigation, safety culture programs and implementation of various health and safety standards. She previously worked for a large aerospace manufacturing facility where she managed health/safety programs and environmental compliance. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 562-495-5777.

(Editor's Note: EHS Today's Safety Leadership Conference, scheduled for Nov. 28-30 in Atlanta, will feature a special lunchtime keynote that offers the real-life experiences of H+M Industrial EPC and its HSE Manager Jay Bice following Hurricane Harvey. H+M's headquarters is in one of the areas hit by Hurricane Harvey, but that didn’t stop this America’s Safest Company, Bice and many employees from reaching out and helping others in other areas of the state. In this uplifting keynote address, Bice will talk about H+M Industrial EPC’s emergency response plan for its facilities, how managers and employees came together to deal with the stress and distraction caused by the hurricane and how employees rallied around to help each other and their communities.)

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