Emergency Preparedness: A Quick OSHA Primer for Employers

By their very nature, emergencies are unpredictable and can cause chaos and countless numbers of hazards. The recent tornados that swept through Kentucky—devastating communities, homes, and businesses—were evidence of how suddenly an emergency can present itself. They were also evidence of how important it is for employers to be prepared for an emergency.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to have an Emergency Action Plan in place for any type of emergency and provides employers with a checklist of action items and considerations. Each Plan, of course, should be specific to the workplace and the potential hazards that could arise.

Man-Made and Natural Hazards.

Emergency Action Plans should address both man-made and natural hazards, as well as the steps an employer will take in the event of any such emergency. These steps will include sounding appropriate alarms, specifying designated meeting areas, taking headcounts of employees, notifying emergency personnel, and—as we witnessed with the recent tornados—instructing employees whether to evacuate or shelter in place.

Evacuate or Shelter in Place?

One of the most important, and sensitive, decisions an employer must make during an emergency is whether to have employees evacuate or shelter in place. Employers should consider several factors when making this decision, such as the recommendations of local authorities, the type of structure in which the employees work, and the type of emergency itself.

For example, in the event of a tornado, employers should follow the local news and authorities to determine whether a tornado watch or tornado warning has been put in place. A tornado “watch” means that the weather conditions make it likely for a tornado to occur in the designated area. A tornado “warning” means that there is an imminent threat, that a tornado has been sighted in the designated area or indicated by radar.

In the event of a watch, employers must be ready to act quickly and take shelter if needed. Employers should continue monitoring alerts until the watch is declared over or upgraded to a warning. In the event of a warning, employers should advise employees to take shelter immediately.

Consideration of a variety of factors, not just whether a watch or a warning has been put in place, will ultimately determine whether an employer should require its employees to shelter in place or evacuate. In the event of a watch, for instance, it may be more appropriate for employees to evacuate. Employers, however, should also consider the type of structure in which the employees are working, including its age and potential vulnerabilities.

When sheltering in place, employees must be trained on what to do and where to, such as specific underground areas (like basements or storm cellars) or other small interior rooms hallways on the lowest possible floor. When possible, employers and employees should avoid auditoriums, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and other areas that have flat, wide-span roofs.

NOTE: Employers can refuse to pay some workers that did not come to work due to severe weather. Employers can also reprimand employees that leave the workplace due to severe weather when they are scheduled to work. Employers, however, cannot force an employee to stay at work during or due to severe weather. Employers, rather, should inform employees of the potential safety risks and take precautions to ensure they are minimizing all hazards.

Delay or Cancel Work?

It may also be appropriate for an employer to delay or cancel work. Ultimately, employers owe a duty to their employees to create and maintain a safe working environment. As part of this duty, employers may exercise their own discretion in deciding whether to remain open. This decision should be made in accordance with their Emergency Action Plan and recommendations of local authorities.

For instance, with respect to severe winter weather, there are some occasions when employers may be required to cancel work due for specific jobs, such as working with heavy machinery, working on scaffolding, and working with electrical equipment. OSHA recommends that employers stay informed by following the National Weather Service and NOAA Weather Radio.

Emergency Preparedness Training

Employers must train their employees on any Emergency Action Plan they’ve put in place, ensuring that employees know what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. Effective training can reduce panic and chaos and ensure a more orderly emergency response.

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Countless factors can increase the risk of harm during any emergency. Employers must have Emergency Action Plans in place and train their employees on all emergency response protocols and procedures. These Plans will help employers make critical, on-the-spot decisions that, in the worst-case scenario, can help save lives.

Does your organization need an Emergency Action Plan? Give us a call. We can help.


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