5 steps to improve emergency preparedness
Many people think “emergency preparedness” starts and ends with making a list of obvious emergencies (fire, flood, chemical spill, medical emergency etc), getting someone to draft an emergency manual, appointing and training an emergency team and holding the occasional drill.
Yes, all of this is necessary, but I believe there is more to it, and it all needs to be done in a carefully planned and systematic way.
My suggested 5 step emergency preparedness process:
- Identify potential emergency situations
- Plan a response to each situation
- Assign appropriate roles and train to create a response team
- Plan internal and external communication
- Periodically test response plans and improve them.
Your Safety Hazards Register and Environmental Aspects Register should help you identify many of your potential emergency situations; your incident and near-miss reports will add further insights, and so will talking to shop-floor staff. Make a record of the emergency situations or incorporate this information into a suitable register.
Some situations might include:
- chemical spills/leaks
- storm, flood
- toxic or flammables release
- loss of power/gas
- loss of cooling/heating
- loss of process control.
You can’t deploy safeguards for every conceivable situation. First, estimate the foreseeable consequences and corresponding likelihood for each emergency situation and calculate risks. Then develop response options and estimate costs. Finally, decide the best response options, and prioritise them considering risk vs cost. Document this work, especially the reasoning for your prioritisation, as evidence of due diligence.
Response planning needs to be realistic. For example, planning to deploy absorption socks from a spill kit when a 200 L drum of acid is ruptured 10 metres from a drain is probably going to be ineffective. Consult staff who are familiar with operations when developing emergency response options. Then test the chosen options if possible (e.g. use a drum of water to test the scenario described).
There is often a high financial cost associated with emergencies. Plan ahead by trying to organise the workplace to reduce, not only personal injury, but also the financial cost of an emergency. For example, decentralise storage of combustibles to reduce loss in a fire; take measures to minimise spoilage of stock or damage to equipment from fire sprinklers; store data backups offsite.
3. Assigning roles
Define emergency roles, train staff in those roles, and make sure you have sufficient trained staff during operating hours every single day. Make sure absences are covered and staff turnover affecting the response team is addressed promptly.
All staff onsite need to know what to do in an emergency. External emergency personnel also may need to have some knowledge of your site and the likely hazards they may encounter. Clear authorities and lines of communication for emergencies should be defined, and backup staff need to be nominated and trained.
5. Drills and testing
Emergency drills are essential. Problems with emergency procedures are generally discovered during drills, and for a new emergency procedure, drills may have to be repeated several times before they work effectively. Be prepared to change procedures to address problems.
Most sites have regular fire drills, but few have drills for other types of emergencies – these need to be practiced too. Set up mock incidents and ask staff to respond to them. (I recommend advising site personnel before running a drill to avoid unnecessary stress or trauma.) Finish with a review and work on the inevitable corrective actions.
With any emergency, near-emergency or drill, a post-mortem can provide insights and opportunities for improvement.
Two examples of mock incidents I use during auditing:
Example 1: I say something like: “I’ve just splashed this caustic chemical in my eyes and they are stinging, please help me!” and see how staff members respond to it.
Generally, they try to get a first-aid officer, or go to the first-aid cabinet trying to find saline and an eye-cup. Most of the time they are unsuccessful and admit defeat. In this instance, eyewash first-aid needs to be somewhere that can be grabbed and deployed immediately.
Example 2: I might, with permission, knock over a container of water (stand-in for a chemical) and see how staff member respond with spill control.
Sometimes, staff will struggle to get the spill clean-up bin open, and then once they do, try to sort out how to use the contents having never seen them before. There is often no thought given to PPE (it is best to place PPE on top of the spill kit contents to prompt its use). Typically, the water disappears down the drain long before any spill controls are ready to be deployed.
Chemical spill preparedness might include regular chemical spill response drills regular spill kit inspections (to ensure the appropriate contents, including PPE, are present) and regular audits to ensure spill containment systems (e.g. bunding) remain effecitive.