In Case of: Effective Responses to Workplace Emergencies

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Emergencies can and do happen in every workplace, but it does not take a rocket scientist to plan for them.

Within sixty seconds of its launch on November 14, 1969, the Apollo 12 spacecraft was struck twice by lightning, which caused critical navigation systems and fuel cells to shut down.

A N.A.S.A. engineer who remembered his training for a similar scenario immediately recommended a fix, which saved the entire mission and quite possibly the lives of the Apollo 12 astronauts.

Four months later, those same engineers faced and successfully responded to challenges that they never anticipated with the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

Emergencies can and do happen in every workplace, but it does not take a rocket scientist to plan for them or to fashion an intelligent response when they do happen.

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Emergencies and Violence: The Stats

Workplace emergencies are not limited to high-tech or high-risk operations light rocket launches. Statistics compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveal more than 23,000 employee were injured in 2013 solely from workplace assaults.

The latest data available from the BLS show that the annual rate of workplace violence has held steady for more than twenty years, and violence continues to be the second leading cause of employee fatalities after transportation accidents.

This does not even account for injuries or fatalities that result from other workplace emergencies, including fires, natural disasters, chemical spills and contamination, or civil disturbances or terrorism. In 2010, more than three million workers suffered injuries following workplace emergencies. How a business responds to emergencies is typically a function of the nature of the emergency itself.

What Is Categorized as an Emergency? 

OSHA defines a workplace emergency as an “unforeseen situation that threatens your employees, customers, or the public; disrupts or shuts down your operations; or causes physical or environmental damage”.

Most individuals might limit their concept of a workplace emergency to newsworthy, large-scale evacuations caused by natural or man-made causes, but lesser-scale emergencies are far more common. One employee might suffer an injury or a sudden medical event.

A small fire might be easily contained by sprinkler systems, but that fire will be no less disruptive of business operations than a larger conflagration. A single disgruntled individual can start an emergency situation that shuts a business down for days. If that individual is armed, the emergency becomes a national tragedy.

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OSHA has issued Emergency Action Plan standards for workplace emergencies that are codified in the Federal Regulations. Those standards define, for example, when and where businesses need to have fire extinguishers, building evacuation plans, and medical emergency response protocols.

The New Focus: Armed Shooter Scenarios

Because of high-profile publicity and responses, businesses are also becoming more attuned to armed shooter scenarios. Although not without objection or controversy, some workplaces are training employees in a run/hide/fight protocol that was popularized by a video produced by the City of Houston.

The gist of that protocol is to train employees first to run from an armed assailant. If running is not possible, the employees should hide, and if hiding is impossible, only then should employees attempt to fight the assailant.

Technology can be a boon during a workplace emergency if it is used as a tool and not a solution. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) places a high priority in communication technology in emergencies. Excessive reliance on technology can be a downfall, however, if an emergency removes the option to use technology. Businesses should consider deeper contingency plans in the event that the emergency takes down their communication networks.

A Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) is a notification that is sent to mobile devices in cases of tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other serious emergencies. These emergency alerts are complimentary public safety service provided by participating wireless service providers. But, if employees have trouble with cellphone reception inside their workplace, they may or may not receive these alerts.

If workplaces were able to plan for all possible workplace emergencies, then to the extent that they were anticipated those events would not be emergencies. The responses by the NASA engineers in the Apollo program are more instructive in developing an effective workplace emergency response plan.

The Apollo 12 lightning strike shows the efficacy of contingency planning for potential emergencies and trusting an employee to implement his or her training when the emergency happens.

The engineer who recommended the solution after the lightning strike was in his early twenties, but his co-workers and the ship’s crew had developed enough of a cohesive relationship and a sense of trust among themselves that they did not hesitate to implement his solution.

During the Apollo 13 mission, the entire workforce again worked cohesively toward a common purpose to develop an effective response that, almost fifty years later, remains one of NASA’s finest efforts.

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A workplace will not always have the luxury of implementing thorough contingency training to prepare for an emergency. A business’s ability to survive a workplace emergency is on a par with the conduct of its regular business operations. As with other aspects of those operations, the most effective emergency response requires mutual employee trust and cohesiveness.

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