Emergency Response: Worst-Case Scenario

Oct. 4, 2006
Employers have not been blind to the lessons learned from current events, ranging from Hurricane Katrina to 9/11 namely, that any workplace can be negatively affected by events outside of the employer's control.

Whether these events are natural, like hurricanes, or man-made, such as deliberate acts of destruction, they can have a crippling effect on businesses and employees. Insurance can replace buildings, equipment and lost income; it cannot replace lost employees, customers or vendors.

Experts estimate that following a natural disaster, nearly 60 percent of businesses directly affected will be closed within 2 years. But it doesn't take a terrorist attack or a major natural disaster to cripple your business. A company can be adversely affected by fire, loss of electrical power, a burst water pipe or a violent act.

Of course, the effect of a crisis will depend upon the size of the company, the number of locations and the type of products or services it offers. The No. 1 determinant of how the business will respond and recover is how well it has planned for emergencies.

Most employers already have developed plans for the "common" emergencies, such as fires, that require evacuation of the building. However, how many employers have gone the extra step and considered a more devastating emergency?

More importantly, how many employers understand which local, state or federal agency or agencies may assume an "emergency management" role in the event of a disaster?

Use What You Have

While it is true that you must be prepared for emergencies, and that nearly any type of emergency could happen, when developing emergency response plans your time and effort must be spent on those events that are most likely to occur or that would be most crippling to your company.

Many businesses are required by OSHA to have an alarm system, emergency action plans and fire prevention plans. These tools are excellent places to start planning for a devastating emergency. Use the emergency alarm system and build upon existing emergency action plans to develop your workplace emergency response planning.

Your employees already should be trained on how to evacuate in case of fire, where to assemble when they evacuate and where to assemble in case of severe weather. Now, add in those elements that your planning team feels appropriate for the other hazards you are most likely to see. For instance, if you are required to shelter-in-place, determine how and where that will be done. Also determine what resources may be required to accomplish this and have them readily available.

For each potential threat, you will have to determine your vulnerabilities. That is:

  • The events that the organization is vulnerable to;
  • The degree of probability that a specific event would occur either high, moderate or low; and
  • The impact or cost to the company if the event were to occur.

Using this risk analysis, you can determine how critical each event would be. If the threat is significant and the company is vulnerable, then you must plan to mitigate, to the extent possible, the vulnerabilities the company faces.

Where to Start

Emergency response planning should address worst-case scenarios. First and foremost, the plan must cover the steps needed to protect employees, customers, vendors, visitors and those in the surrounding areas.

The plan should be in writing and updated on a regular basis. A comprehensive emergency response plan never is truly finished. It always is under review and revision, changing as the conditions of the workplace change. Regularly update employee, local authority, press and other contact information associated with the plan.

Once the emergency response plan is in writing, distribute copies to all employees. The plan should be introduced at staff meetings. Selected portions of the plan may be given special emphasis, such as focusing on the tornado response plan at the start of tornado season.

Train employees on what to do in an emergency, and hold mock emergency drills to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan. As part of that emergency drill, review the plan with local authorities, your insurance carrier and legal counsel.

Procedures on how to call or who to contact for information when not at work also should be distributed. Drills are excellent ways to train employees on what to do in an emergency and to gauge the effectiveness of the plans.

Once the safety of people has been assured, then you can tackle:

  • Protecting property and recovery of company assets;
  • Communicating with employees, vendors and clients;
  • Recovering documents and electronic data;
  • Protecting equipment and physical resources;
  • Locating alternate physical facilities;
  • Finding alternate suppliers/ sources of raw materials;
  • Maintaining cash flow;
  • Addressing legal issues; and
  • Processing insurance and medical claims.

Create an Emergency Response Team

Establish an emergency response team to develop or to review the company's emergency response planning. The team should have representatives from all areas of the company to ensure all potential hazards or circumstances are addressed. Human resources should be represented to address personnel issues. Also include a representative from senior management with financial and decision-making responsibilities who can address crisis-based financial decisions.

The team may become the nucleus of the larger workplace emergency response team, which would assume critical functions during any emergency.

The team should designate one person as the emergency response coordinator or incident commander, someone who has the authority to implement the policies the team has developed and oversee the technical aspects of the response. The coordinator should have the authority to:

  • Assess the situation and implement the emergency management plan;
  • Determine the best response strategy;
  • Secure the scene;
  • Summon local authorities;
  • Interact with local, state and federal governmental agencies;
  • Order the evacuation or shutdown of the facility;
  • Requisition needed suppliers;
  • Interface with outside groups; and
  • Issue press releases.

In some cases, laws, codes, prior agreements or the nature of the emergency require that local, state or federal authorities assume command. If this were to happen, the coordinator would stay on site to answer questions from authorities and act as liaison for the company. The coordinator should:

  • Note what organizations are on site;
  • What actions are being taken; and
  • Log all other pertinent events. The log may prove to be very useful after the crisis has been stabilized.

Also, determine lines of succession to ensure continuous leadership, authority and responsibility in key positions.

Establish a Command Post

The plan also must note where a central command post will be located, based upon the nature of the event. This is an area where the decision makers will gather and where communications can be established.

Obviously, the command post should be located in an area of the facility that will not be involved in the emergency, or more than one post may be designated so the coordinator can select the most appropriate post based on the situation.

Each command post must have the necessary reference materials and communications gear, including a copy of the emergency response plan; copies of MSDSs; facilities plans, maps and blueprints; employee lists and contact information; radios, telephones and other communications equipment; backup power; and other necessary tools to allow the coordinator to respond in an emergency.

A key person at the command post might be the person designated as the primary contact with the press in the event of an emergency. All communications should be funneled through that person. The company also will have to determine how best to communicate with: employees and their families; local, state and federal agencies; customers, suppliers and vendors; your insurance company or companies; and owners, shareholders or other stakeholders.

Are You in Charge?

Depending on the event, your emergency response coordinator might not be in charge for long. When developing the plan, contact local authorities. Find out what government agencies will respond to the various emergencies, and discuss with them the various disaster scenarios that you have identified.

Governmental authorities may have a different view of what types of events are most likely to occur or what the most critical events are.

Try to determine in advance what authorities may require you to do in each circumstance. For instance, will the state or federal government take charge of the facility and the response effort? Will they require all of your people to evacuate? Can you keep your in-house response team on site to run critical equipment or to do a sequenced shutdown?

Keep a list of names, titles and contact information available for all local authorities. This would include all local, state and federal law enforcement, fire authorities, OSHA or state workplace safety contacts, LEPC and EPA contacts.

Know Your Resources

Remember to contact neighboring businesses when developing your plan. They may have something to offer in the way of support in case of an emergency. In fact, they may be among the first responders to your facility.

Determine if you can arrange a mutual support agreement with neighboring organizations to supply help in the event of an emergency. They may be able to offer fire fighting equipment, first aid assistance, an evacuation area or building space.

Don't forget to involve your legal counsel in the planning stage. Have your legal team review your plans. They can help anticipate challenges and legal questions that may arise. They also can help you identify various local, state or federal agencies with which they may have to interact.

Counsel can advise your emergency response team about any laws, policies and government issues that may arise in any given event. By preparing ahead of time, counsel also may find they will have more options for dealing with emerging issues that may not be available to them within the confines of a disaster response.

Upgrade Your Emergency Response

Don't find out by trial and error that you are not prepared. The old saying "Failing to plan is planning to fail" is never truer than when applied to your workplace emergency response plans. Use all of the resources available your insurance company, local authorities, your peers and your neighbors to revise and update your planning.

Go the extra mile to help make your workplace that much safer by planning what you will do in the event of a disaster.

Sidebar: Planning for Emergencies


Every business is vulnerable to fire damage, and most workplaces already have a written fire prevention plan, required by OSHA, local fire code or by their insurance company. By inviting local fire authorities into the facility, the local fire department can get to know the layout of the building, location of utility hook-ups, employee evacuation and head count areas and other issues of potential concern.

The fire department also needs to know about processes and materials that could cause or accelerate a fire or have an adverse effect upon the environment if burned.

Weather Emergencies

You must determine if you face threats from natural disasters and if so, the likelihood of such an event and plan accordingly.

The emergency response team needs to consider:

  • What would the company do if power were out for any length of time?
  • What if the building were damaged or destroyed by weather events?
  • How would you shelter employees in a weather emergency?
  • What would happen if the building was flooded?
  • How to contact employees in the case of an emergency or to inform them not to report to work?

Chemical Spills

Many workplaces are vulnerable to an accidental release of hazardous chemicals, if not from the workplace itself, then from an industrial or transportation operation in the neighborhood. In the event of a large release, the plan needs to address appropriate responses, based upon the hazards.

Workplace Violence

Consider workplace violence and other man-made events. While in rare cases this might include planning for terrorist activities, for most employers this means planning for workplace violence by or toward employees, customers or vendors.

Robert A. Ernst is an associate editor at J.J. Keller & Associates Inc. of Neenah, Wisc., where he focuses on workplace safety issues, right-to-know compliance, OSHA standards and emergency response. Ernst has more than 20 years experience working in the field of technical writing, adult education and workplace safety. He has authored numerous articles for a variety of safety and industry publications.

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