Emergencies in The Workplace
Emergency Assembly Areas
In the event of a fire or other emergency which calls for the evacuation of a building, there needs to be a designated area where the people coming out of the building can assemble. These assembly points need to have a number of characteristics:
Firstly, they must be located at a suitable distance away from the premises that has just been evacuated. This is because the issue that is the cause of the incident and brought about the need to evacuate is almost certain to still be a danger to people if they are stood right next to the building, e.g. a fire, an explosion or a poisonous gas leak. It is also important to ensure that the location of the assembly site or sites is not in the way and causing an obstruction to the emergency services, as the additional time required for them to fight their way through a crowd could make a significant difference to the amount of damage to property or people that is subsequently caused.
The assembly areas need to be clearly signposted so that not only is it obvious where people are supposed to gather, but it should also prevent others from obstructing the area by parking in it or dumping items there. Even though there should be clear signs, workers will also need to be informed of their location when they are provided with the health and safety training element of their induction. Additionally, there needs to be a suitable number of assembly points to accommodate the number of people that will be gathering there.
It is important that evacuations and other elements of health and safety are carefully planned before an incident takes place. This is because mistakes are likely to be made and extra time needed to evacuate if it is being made up in the midst of an incident taking place. This forward planning should determine things such as who is responsible for conducting fire sweeps of certain areas of the building to ensure everybody has gotten out, who is tasked with performing a roll call at each assembly point, and who is to brief the emergency services on what is happening/has happened. There also needs to be provisions made for anyone who may require assistance in evacuating the building or reaching the assembly area.
Emergency Control Rooms
Certain high-risk workplaces which could potentially cause a health and safety danger over a large area will often have emergency control rooms. Such facilities include nuclear power stations for example, which have the potential to cause widespread devastation both to the health and wellbeing of people in the vicinity, but also to the local environment as well. Not only this, but the danger to health will not just exist in the immediate aftermath of the incident, but will pose a risk for many years to come.
For these places of work, an emergency control room where workers can perform actions such as shutting down pieces of equipment or initiating safety features is a vital object. Ideally it should be located far enough away from the possible cause of the danger (e.g. a nuclear reactor), and needs to be able to withstand the possible threats and consequences of a particular incident. Examples include:
Many industries make use of substances and materials which are extremely hazardous to the health of all living creatures, including people. Any incident which causes this to be released into the air is obviously a serious issue to put it mildly, and so any emergency control rooms need to provide suitable protection against this threat. The distance over which an airborne or radioactive threat can spread means that it will often be impossible for the control room to be located sufficiently far away from the incident epicentre, but other measures can be introduced such as suitable sealing and lining to prevent such substances entering the control room, and ensuring that ventilation systems do not continue to pump contaminants in from outside.
Fires are a health and safety danger in every place of work, which is why fire safety training is provided to every worker who receives health and safety training. In high risk industries, fires are often even more of a danger as not only will the hazardous substances present often be extremely flammable, but there is also a risk of a large-scale explosion.
Control rooms therefore need to be able to withstand the heat of a raging fire, both in terms of its structural integrity but also for the temperature of those people occupying the inside.
Lines of Communication
In an emergency situation communication is crucial, not only to co-ordinate responses to the incident but also to call for assistance. It is important therefore that communication lines are protected to withstand influences such as fire, and that there are back-up lines too. We have already seen that mobile phones can be vital for calling the emergency services, and these should be available for use also.
Emergency control room workers need to be able to see what they are doing! Just like the communication lines, not only do lighting systems need to be protected, but backup systems need to be in place to provide emergency lighting should the main system fail.
In a major disaster, there is a possibility that the occupants of the control room may be trapped inside for a number of days before rescue teams can reach them. Provision should therefore be made for drinking water and food items to be located in the room for emergency use. If possible, toilet and wash facilities would also be a highly advisable addition.
When it comes to health and safety, backup procedures and facilities can be the difference between life and death. An accident or incident can easily damage a system, and so having a backup/spare/alternate option can make all the difference, and should be put into place whenever possible. Taking this one step further, having two emergency control rooms instead of one, located far apart from each other, would provide even more of a safety net, as one could probably be reached if the other one was badly damaged or access to it blocked.
Evacuation Provisions for Persons Requiring Assistance
A comprehensive health and safety policy and emergency plan needs to incorporate the varying needs and physical capabilities of everyone who may be present in the building. It can be easy for those who are performing a fire risk assessment or devising the emergency evacuation procedures for an organisation to forget that there are likely to be people in the building(s) - particularly if it is a large company with many employees and numerous visitors coming and going for meetings, appointments etc -who may have additional requirements for safely and speedily evacuating the premises. It is essential that these needs are addressed and suitable planning done before an incident arises to enable this assistance to be provided so that people are not left trapped in the building.
People who may require assistance in the event of an emergency include the elderly, those in wheelchairs, deaf/hard of hearing, blind, infirm, mentally impaired and many others. Provisions will need to be made such as ensuring that those in wheelchairs can safely exit the building i.e. there are no steps on the escape route, that those who are deaf or hard of hearing are either provided with a vibrating alert device or that these people, along with the blind and infirm, have someone to assist them with evacuating the building. A comprehensive sweep in which all areas of the building are checked by a nominated person(s) will help to ensure that those requiring assistance are safely out of the building and have not been left behind inside.
Nominate People to Call Relevant Bodies in an Emergency
Despite all of the instructions and guidance to keep calm, in an emergency quite often a degree of panic and confusion will be present. When it does, employees will need to fall back on the health and safety training which they received prior to the emergency situation unfolding, and is why preparation is key to both staving off and dealing with any emergency condition or event.
Amongst other things, this health and safety preparatory work should nominate certain individuals to perform a distinct task if it ever becomes necessary. As well as checking particular areas of the premises, a vital task which needs to be completed is the timely alerting of the emergency services or the relevant authorities. Not only can this act be the difference between a relatively minor mishap and a large scale disaster, but can also be the difference between people suffering minor injuries (if any) and serious ones, or potentially being killed. The same also applies for the environment, as failing to alert the necessary bodies can be what separates a small amount of damage and a major environmental catastrophe such as large scale water pollution for example.
Before an emergency incident occurs it will therefore be necessary to allocate the task of notifying the relevant bodies should an incident occur. A common mistake during an emergency is to assume that somebody else will make the call. A person is especially likely to think this when the incident is large and therefore many people on the premises are aware.
Allocating this responsibility to somebody before an incident takes place should ensure that somebody does indeed make the call. It is also a good idea to have somebody else nominated with the responsibility if there is any doubt that the first person has done it, for instance if they are known to be absent from the workplace that day, or are unaccounted for and may be caught up in the incident itself and so be unable to call. It is better for two calls to be made than none at all.
The Need for Training Before an Emergency
Along with knowing who should do what, there is also the need for practice to ensure that everybody knows precisely how to fulfil their allocated role should an emergency come to pass. Practicing the drill also helps to retain it to memory so that the knowledge can be called upon when it is needed the most, i.e. when an emergency is unfolding around a person.
On-Site Defibrillators & Health and Safety
Regardless of the kind of business that you are - restaurant, store, mechanics, anything - it's vital to have the right kind of health and safety equipment available on-site for you. Not only will this will help you to reduce accidents and injuries in the first place, but will also make sure that you have a means of helping anyone who does happen to get into difficulties.
One of the most important things that any business should have on-site, though, is a defibrillator. This is a massively important piece of equipment to have, and will save lives.
Modern AEDs are designed to be used even by those without any prior knowledge of what to do, but it is far more preferable to have members of staff trained up in their usage and in general first aid. The expense of training and having these on-site might seem off-putting for some managers who are reluctant to spend money on anything when their primary objective is to make as high a profit as possible for the company, but it's a lot better to be slightly out of pocket than dealing with the death of a customer or staff member on your business premises!
Preparation is one of the key factors in the creation of a safe working environment, as preparing and taking appropriate precautions is the best method for preventing an accident or emergency situation occurring. Performing thorough risk assessments on a regular basis can identify potential risks and hazards before an incident occurs, and allows management to put into place suitable control measures to hopefully prevent that potential becoming a reality. Prevention is far more preferable than dealing with the consequences when it comes to health and safety.
It is a good idea to use an external health and safety training provider to come in and have a look at the way your company has designed and is implementing health and safety protocols to the benefit of your staff. They will also be able to provide necessary training courses and programmes to teach workers about the dangers which they are likely to encounter whilst at work, and, more pertinently, how to avoid them or at least lessen the likelihood of them suffering ill-health or an accident because of it. The safety training provider can also advise on safety equipment which should be purchased in order to improve the overall health and safety levels of the premises, such as defibrillators or fire extinguishers.
Importance of Backup Systems and Training in Health and Safety
Aside from health and safety training including courses such as the NEBOSH General Certificate which provides workers with knowledge pertaining to staying safe in a workplace, another key element of health and safety relies upon systems and controls. These can either take the form of automated systems which activate whenever they are called upon, relying on sensors and other inputs to recognise when parameters have changed to values outside of safe levels. When such detection occurs, safety features automatically activate and take appropriate action to either correct the levels back to acceptable amounts, or to take an action such as an auto shut down of a machine or process and then triggering an alarm for people to evacuate the area. The specific action which is taken will depend upon many factors including:
- Which value has been exceeded, as different circumstances will require a different response. For example, is the machine overheating? Losing power? Running out of fuel? Vibrating excessively?
- The potential danger of an incident. Will the machine simply stop working and can be restarted easily? Or could it explode and be a potential risk to life or cause serious injury?
- The substances or materials used. Would an incident simply cause a non-hazardous mess which just needs a quick sweeping up with a brush, or would it cause the release of highly toxic gases or chemicals which could not only have a devastating impact upon the health and wellbeing of all living creatures in the vicinity, but would also require complicated and expensive clean-up operations to make the area safe again.
- Proximity to certain areas. The location of the hypothetical incident may have some bearing on the potential severity of it, and the robustness of the control measures which need to be in place. For instance, is the site located near to a heavily populated area? Or next to land which has been designated as a highly-sensitive wildlife zone which can be strongly affected by any incident like a fire or accidental contamination of the land/water? Do workers need to acquire a NEBOSH Environmental Certificate or similar to be aware of how their actions in the workplace can affect the environment?
What About Back-up Systems?
For companies which depend upon automated systems to prevent incidents that can have major health and safety implications for both people and the environment, it will be highly beneficial to have back-up systems if possible which will take effect should the primary system fail for some reason. Although in many cases it will not be feasible or possible to have two safety systems in place for a process or piece of equipment, if it can be done then it should be so that the probability of an incident actually taking place is significantly reduced, as the likelihood of two safety mechanisms failing is far lower than just one.
Having back-up systems to complement the primary safety features, along with comprehensive health and safety training and courses for staff members to give them a high level of knowledge regarding working safely, can be a highly successful combination for preventing an accident or incident.
Availability of Site Plans in a Health and Safety Emergency
In the article titled "Importance of Accurate Inventories for Health and Safety" we saw how keeping accurate inventories regarding the types and quantities of hazardous substances that are stored on site is so important for the emergency services when it comes to organising the containment of the site, and preventing any further damage to the safety and health of people (both workers and members of the public) and that of the local environment.
Not only are the type and quantity of substances critically important with regards to influencing the containment and the remedial actions to be taken, but also the plans of the site are normally of vital significance too. The topography of the land can affect certain actions, for instance large volumes of water used to put out fires can end up washing harmful chemicals onto the surrounding land and watercourses. Not only this, but site plans should have marked on them the location of gas pipes and other such items which can obviously have serious consequences for the health and safety of everybody in the area as fires or ruptures to this pipe can cause a sizeable explosion. The site plan may not only contain potential hazards, but also necessary features for tackling the emergency such as clearly marked locations of fire hydrants.
Keep The Site Plan Accessible
Having a detailed site plan is of little value though if it is hidden away somewhere and possibly even lost. It needs to be easily accessible, and its location known by many different people in case one or two are away from the site on the day of the accident. This will allow it to be given to the emergency services and used by them to prevent further damage and danger, as well as helping to bring under control and put right the initial incident.
It is also a good idea to have a number of copies of the site plan located at various points around the site. Not only will this help for speedier locating of a plan, but will also mean there are others available should one be stored in an area which has been badly damaged by fire or other factor causing the location to be inaccessible.
Keep The Plan Current
Obviously the site plan needs to be kept constantly up-to-date, including all copies. Having a site plan which does not contain all of the elements or features which are actually present can endanger lives and make what could have started as a fairly minor incident into a catastrophic disaster for both people's health and the environment.
A Roll Call Has Its Limitations
Roll calls are used when people are assembled in an area after evacuating a building to check whether all those who were inside are now stood in the emergency assembly point and so have safely evacuated the building, meaning that they are not trapped in there and requiring rescue.
The roll call needs to know who was present in the building and who was not to be effective, which relies on the perfect operation of a signing in and signing out process. Unfortunately this has its limitations as it is going to be highly unlikely in all but the smallest of companies. People will forget or simply not be bothered to sign in and/or out at times. Even the introduction of electronic cards in some organisations which require the card to be swiped before the door will open and a person can enter or leave will still not be 100% accurate as people may be able to borrow the card of a colleague if they misplace or leave their own at their desk, or "tailgate" in which they follow close behind a person before the door shuts and in doing so do not need to swipe their own card, and as such are not registered by the system as having entered or exited.
If somebody is on the list as being in the building but are not present in the assembly point, it will be unknown whether they are simply away from the site, or whether they are in fact trapped in the building and in real danger. This may mean that somebody goes in and searches for them, placing their own safety in jeopardy, when in actual fact there was no need to if the person is not there. Not only will a roll call need to cover workers, but also needs to include visitors to the site who would be in the building too.