Back to Basics, Emergency Preparedness and Response

Back to Basics: Evacuation Procedures

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine OSHA’s recommendations for evacuation procedures.

During emergencies, things can go wrong in an instant. It’s crucial for safety leaders to develop emergency action plans (EAP) with effective evacuation procedures, so that in a disaster scenario, employees know where to go.

Plan development

When deciding on evacuation procedures for an EAP, it is important for employers to consider the conditions under which evacuation would be necessary, and the conditions under which it would be better to shelter-in-place. A clear chain of command must be established, a person must be designated as the one to authorize or order an evacuation or shutdown. The employees must know who this coordinator is and understand that this person has the authority to make decisions during emergencies.

Specific routes and exits must be mapped out, especially for high-rise buildings, and procedures for assisting visitors and employees during evacuation should be established. Employers must specify if any employees will remain behind after an evacuation to shut down critical operations or perform other duties before evacuating.

A means of accounting for employees must be established, and special equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) must also be in order for when an emergency happens. During this development and implementation of the EAP, employers must think about all possible emergency situations and evaluate their workplaces to see if the plan complies with OSHA’s emergency standards.

Evacuation vs. shelter-in-place

There are many emergencies, both man-made and natural, may require a workplace to be evacuated, including the following:

  • Fires
  • Explosions
  • Floods
  • Earthquakes
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Toxic material releases
  • Radiological and biological accidents
  • Civil disturbances
  • Workplace violence

The responses to each of these threats will be different, depending on what the employer decides. Leadership should ask themselves questions and brainstorm the worst-case scenarios. The type of building that the business is located in might be a factor in determining emergency response, as most buildings are vulnerable to disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, or explosions. The extent of the damage depends on the type of emergency and the building’s construction.

In other cases, chemical, biological, or radiological contaminants may be released into the environment in certain amounts or proximities to a workplace that may require the employees to shelter-in-place. These releases might be accidental or intentional, depending on the situation, and oftentimes local authorities will issue a shelter-in-place advisory via TV or radio. “Shelter-in-place” means selecting an interior room or rooms within a facility, or ones with no or few windows, and taking refuge there. OSHA does provide guidance for employers on shelter-in-place procedures, and how to prepare to stay or evacuate.

Routes and exits

When determining routes and exits, most employers create maps from floor diagrams with arrows that designate the exit route assignments. These maps must include exit locations, assembly points, and equipment, such as fire extinguishers, first aid kids, and spill kits that might be necessary during an emergency.

Exit routes should be clearly marked and well lit, and wide enough to accommodate the number of evacuating personnel. They should be unobstructed and clear of debris at all times, and unlikely to expose the evacuating personnel to more hazards. Drawings of evacuation routes and exits should be posted prominently in places that all employees can see.

OSHA provides specific information on exit routes, required heights and widths, and door access and hinges that employers should use when creating evacuation plans.

Evacuation assistance

To assist visitors and employees with evacuation, many employers will designate individuals as evacuation wardens to help move employees from danger to safe areas during an emergency. Generally, one warden for every 20 employees should be enough, and the appropriate number of wardens must be available at all times during working hours.

Wardens are responsible for checking offices, bathrooms, and all other spaces before being the last person to exit an area, and for ensuring that fire doors are closed when exiting. All employees who are going to assist in emergency evacuation procedures should be trained in the complete workplace layout and various alternative escape routes if the primary evacuation route becomes blocked. These employees should also be made aware of any workers with special needs who may require extra help, how to use the buddy system, and any hazardous areas to avoid during evacuation.

Visitors must also be accounted for following an evacuation and might need additional help when exiting. Consider having visitors and contractors sign in when entering the workplace, and using that list to account for everyone in the assembly area. The hosts and/or area wardens are often tasked with helping these individuals safely evacuate. Additionally, coordinating evacuation procedures with other employers in the same building can be helpful, though OSHA does not require it.

Critical operations

At many workplaces, certain equipment and processes must be shut down in stages or over time. In some instances, especially for large manufacturers operating complex processes, it is not possible or practical for equipment or certain processes to be shut down under certain emergency situations. However, for smaller enterprises, it is often normal to be able to turn off equipment and utilities if necessary and continue with evacuation.

Some small businesses might require designated employees to remain behind briefly to operate fire extinguishers or shut down gas and/or electrical systems and other special equipment that could be damaged if it were left operating, or if it would create additional hazards for emergency responders. It is common for smaller establishments to plan out locations where utilities can be shut down for all or part of the facility, either by your own employees or by emergency responders.

Employers must review their operation and determine whether total and immediate evacuation is possible for different types of emergencies. While the preferred approach is the immediate evacuation of all employees, in cases where workers will stay behind, the evacuation plan must describe the procedures that these workers must follow in detail. Employees who stay behind must be able to recognize when to abandon the operation or task and evacuate themselves before their path is blocked.

After evacuation

OSHA recommends taking the following steps to ensure the fastest and most accurate accountability for all employees and visitors after an evacuation has occurred. Designate assembly areas, or “areas of refuge,” where workers should gather after evacuating. These spaces must have enough room to accommodate all employees and visitors. Exterior assembly areas are typically located in parking lots or other open areas away from busy streets, and should ideally be upwind of the building from the most common or prevailing wind direction.

Take a head count after the evacuation and identify the names and last known locations of anyone not accounted for, and pass them to the official in charge. Accounting for all employees is critical: confusion in the assembly areas can lead to delays in rescuing anyone trapped in the building, or unnecessary and dangerous search-and-rescue operations. When designating an assembly area, consider the possibility of employees interfering with rescue operations, and try to minimize that possibility.

Lastly, establish a method for accounting for non-employees like suppliers and contractors, and procedures for further evacuation in case the incident expands. This could consist of sending employees home by normal means or providing them with transportation to an offsite location.

Click here for more information on OSHA’s recommendations for evacuation.

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