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November 27, 2001

How To Handle A Workplace Emergency

By Maureen Alvarez, CIH, CSP

Most of your safety training teaches you how to do your job safely on a day-to-day basis.  But what about those rare times when something goes seriously wrong?  Would you know how to respond?

Emergency preparedness is an important part of your job safety training.

What is an emergency?  It is an unexpected, potentially harmful occurrence.  It could be an injury incident, a severe illness, a chemical spill, a fire, flood or storm, an assault or other incident.

Your company should have a plan to deal with various types of emergencies.  Certain personnel may be appointed and trained to respond to these emergencies.  No matter what your job is, make sure you know your part in your companies emergency response plan.

The following is a checklist to help you learn what to do in the event of an emergency:

  • Find out who to contact to get help in an emergency.  Emergency numbers should be posted at each telephone.  In many areas dialing 9-1-1 puts you in touch with a number of emergency services, but find out if this is the case in your work area.
  • Know the address of your workplace - and how to give directions to get there - in case you have to call for emergency help.  The emergency responders will need your name and the phone number at your location as well.  When called to a large plant, fire fighters or ambulance crews can waste valuable time searching for the exact location of the emergency.
  • It is a good idea to direct the emergency personnel to a main entrance where one of your employees can take them directly to the incident.
  • Find out who to contact within the company in case of an emergency.  Do you have an Emergency Preparedness Manager?  Is there an internal fire brigade, Hazmat team or emergency response team?  Who is in charge of medical responses?
  • Know the location of emergency equipment. This may include fire extinguishers, break-glass alarms, first aid kits, safety showers, eye wash stations, chemical spill control materials and others.
  • Learn how to operate any emergency equipment which you may have to use.  Know which kinds of fire extinguishers to use on various kinds of fires.  Make sure you know how to use the safety shower and eye wash station - even if you are frightened and temporarily blinded by a chemical splash.
  • Learn CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), as well as basic first aid.  These skills sometimes make the difference between life and death when incidents occur, both at work and off the job.
  • Make sure you know where to find the MSDS (Material Data Safety Sheet) for any chemical used in the workplace.  These sheets provide valuable information which you will need in case of an accidental chemical exposure or spill.
  • Know the evacuation route from your work area.  Find at least two exits ahead of time. Also find out where you are supposed to assemble with your co-workers after you have left the building.

Know How To Find Emergency Exits

We pass them every day, but how many of us really see them? Doors with an "Exit" sign may not be interesting, but they are vital to your well-being.

Emergency exits are essential to escape from:

  • Fires, either inside the building or in the surrounding area.
  • Explosions caused by gas leaks or chemical reactions.
  • Power outages caused by natural disasters or internal electrical problems.
  • Building collapse or major structural failure.
  • Release of toxic substances or spills of flammable liquids.
  • Natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tornados.

Several of these events may happen in a sequence as one triggers another.  An explosion may start a fire and cause structural damage in one part of a building.  The fire may also cause a loss of electrical power, plunging your work area into darkness.  Bearing this in mind, emergency exits probably seem a lot more important to you now. 

Make it a personal safety habit to know the location of at least two emergency exits at all times.  This applies off the job as well as on the job.  No matter where you are in a building, even if you are just passing through, look for two emergency exits.  However, this does not include elevators.  You should never use an elevator during a fire emergency.

What can you do to ensure the emergency exits in your work area are safe?

  • Keep exits clear. Don't use them as storage areas, not even temporarily.
  • Doors should be secured to prevent unauthorized entry from the outside, but not to prevent employees from exiting in emergencies.
  • Report to your supervisor any structural problems which may effect an emergency exit route. Look for broken hand railings, loose stair treads, and doors which do not open easily.
  • Also check for burned out light bulbs in the overhead fixtures. Report them to your maintenance department so they will be replaced.
  • Lighted exit signs should be in good working order, and have a battery backup in case of a power failure.
  • Never store flammable liquids or combustible products near or under an exit or stairway.
  • Emergency exits should be properly labeled. Doors which lead to a storeroom or closet should also be correctly labeled so that you don't become confused during an emergency.
  • Pathways and aisles leading to your escape routes should be clean and well-maintained. Don't use aisles or traffic areas for storing stock or equipment.
  • Perhaps you have physical disabilities which make it difficult for you to use some types of emergency exits. In that case, do you know which exits you can use? Is there another employee in your work area who can assist you when required?
  • Knowing your exit routes helps eliminate panic.

Knowing what to do in case of an emergency can help prevent panic and it can save lives. Learn your part in emergency procedures.

For additional information regarding Emergency Preparedness please check out these links to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) at http://www.fema.gov/ and the US EPA at http://www.epa.gov/swercepp/.

Copyright © 2001 by WorkCare™ All Rights Reserved

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