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Elements of an Emergency Action Plan

After reviewing documents and records, and conducting the walkthrough, the committee needs to write or update the emergency action plan. The key parts of the plan are spelled out by OSHA.2 They provide guidance to workplaces not covered by OSHA standards as well. Here are some specific areas of concern:

  • emergencies the employer may reasonably expect in the workplace 

  • alarms/communication systems, and how alarms will be activated 

  • methods of reporting an emergency 

  • emergency escape procedures and routes 

  • procedures for assisting workers and visitors with disabilities 

  • procedures to account for all employees after an evacuation 

  • procedures for those who remain behind to operate critical operations 

  • names of key personnel 

  • rescue and medical procedures 

  • procedures for special situations, such as precautions involved with certain chemicals and equipment

Potential risks (vulnerability analysis)

The committee first needs to determine what emergencies are most likely to occur in the facility and what level of harm they might cause. For example, the committee should review the list of emergencies on Page 4 that could result from natural or human causes. A sample vulnerability analysis chart written by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in Appendix A. Once a comprehensive list of potential emergencies is put together, the committee can prioritize those emergencies with the highest risk. Although the emergency action plan will address all emergencies in some way, the plan will focus on the most likely events.

Alarms and communication systems

In a situation requiring evacuation, the first step is to let all occupants know they must leave the building. Occupants must know which alarm means to evacuate. Once the alarm has gone off, everyone (except key personnel assigned to special operations) must leave the facility and not return until an “All Clear” signal is given. The all clear is usually given by the fire department or whoever is designated in the plan.

Reporting emergencies

Not all alarm systems automatically alert outside help. If the alarm system does not notify the fire department (or other outside assistance) automatically, someone must be assigned to call for help.

Evacuation plans

There are key issues that must be addressed in any evacuation plan.

  1. Escape routes must meet the following criteria:
    • There are enough exits. 

    • Exits are not blocked. 

    • Exits are clearly marked. (Many emergency situations involve smoke and fire that make it difficult to see.) 

    • The routes to the exits must be wide enough to accommodate the number of occupants normally in the building.

    • Exits lead to a public thoroughfare (not to a closed area, like a courtyard). 

    • Escape routes do not lead through any area that may cause more danger to the evacuees (such as an area where hazardous materials are stored). 

    • Secondary routes are available in case the primary route is blocked

    For more information on proper signage, number and placement of exits, consult your local fire department or the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code — NFPA 101 (see our listing under Publications).

  2. The plan must address how workers, guests and visitors with disabilities will be assisted out of the building and who will help them. 

  3. Staff and other occupants must be moved to a safe area.
    • The safe area must be far enough away from the building so as to not hamper emergency operations and also provide safety for those evacuated. 

    • Emergency shelter may be needed in some situations.

Once workers are safely out of the building, there must be a way to account for the occupants of the building. The plan must designate where people will gather to be accounted for, and who will take attendance. It is important that workers know not to leave the area until they have been accounted for! Also, it is vital that the employer knows how many visitors and guests are in the building and account for them as well. One of the people who died in the 1991 Hamlet, N.C., chicken processing plant fire worked for an outside company and was restocking the vending machines in the plant lunchroom. No one realized he had been in facility until the truck was reported missing.

Procedures for staff who do not immediately evacuate

In some cases, some staff may need to perform particular tasks before getting out of the workplace, such as:

  • Shutting down heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to stop the spread of smoke, fire and/or contaminants. 

  • Shutting down key processes such as critical systems in hospitals, experiments in labs or chlorine processes in wastewater treatment. 

  • Backing up information systems. 

  • Acting as floor captains to make sure everyone leaves. 

  • Using fire extinguishers or other firefighting equipment. 

  • Giving first aid and CPR.

List of key personnel

If workers are to perform any duties other than evacuate during an emergency, the names of those individuals must be listed in the plan and they must be trained in those duties.

Rescue and medical services

In an emergency, there is always the potential that workers and responders may be injured. The employer should find out which medical facilities are closest to them. The committee should take a look at the workplace to make sure that it is accessible to emergency services. It is crucial that emergency medical services (EMS) be able to get to the facility in a reasonable amount of time. The committee should find out which fire department is most likely to be called to the workplace in an emergency. The committee should meet with those fire department and EMS personnel in the area to discuss what services can and will be provided in an emergency. The contact names and numbers must be listed in the plan, and kept current.

In certain cases it may be necessary to have emergency medical and rescue services on site, for example:

  • employers in remote areas 

  • high security situations or 

  • employers with high hazard operations.

Employers providing emergency medical care on site must be sure to keep all supplies stocked and easy to get to in an emergency.

Special situations and considerations


Workers may become contaminated either during an emergency or during the evacuation process if the employer uses certain hazardous materials (such as corrosives, toxics or radioactive agents). The employer must have procedures to decontaminate workers and usually they must be decontaminated before emergency medical services will take them to a medical facility.

Sheltering in-place

In some situations evacuation is not always the proper response or only a certain section of a facility is evacuated. "Shelter in-place" may be necessary in:

  • correctional facilities 

  • health care facilities 

  • during certain chemical releases or 

  • tornado or high winds.

Sheltering in-place may require staff to take actions such as:

  • Shutting down the HVAC systems. 

  • Blocking air/smoke/contaminates from coming inside the “safe” area using towels, blankets, duct tape, etc. 

  • Moving to a basement or shelter area. 

  • Shoring up glass doors and windows.

Procedures to shelter in-place need to be in writing. Staff who have to perform any of the actions listed above must be trained and have an opportunity to practice the required procedures.

Emergency Response

Workers who perform duties other than those related to evacuation are called emergency responders. The employer must put in writing what actions these workers must take. This is called an emergency response plan. The employer must also provide training and proper equipment so those workers can safely carry out their duties.

There are specific OSHA regulations for those responding in an emergency. These include:

  • Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) [29 CFR 1910.120] — Workers who discover, report, confine or contain hazardous chemical releases must be trained to safely perform their duties. State and local government workers who perform these tasks but who are not covered by OSHA have the same protections under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

  • Use of Fire Extinguishers [29 CFR 1910.157] — Applies to workers who are expected to use fire extinguishers. They must be trained when they are hired — and each year thereafter — on how to use different types of extinguishers. 

  • Industrial Fire Brigades [29 CFR 1910.156] — These are special in-house firefighting teams. These are much more common in private industry (such as large manufacturing or chemical plants) than the public sector. They must be trained according to the National Fire Protection Standards for Industrial Fire Brigades.

Note: If any of these actions require specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) or respirators, workers must be trained and fitted for this equipment For more information on PPE see AFSCME’s publication SAFE JOBS NOW! 

Bomb Threats

The number of bomb threats has been increasing. Government facilities have been recipients of threats, although almost all of them turn out to be false. If the facility has received a bomb threat, it should be included on the vulnerability analysis. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has a checklist on what to do if a bomb threat is received over the phone (see Appendix C). Recommendations for responding to a bomb threat include:

  • Treat all bomb threats seriously. 

  • Note any suspicious packages or things that seem out of place, and report them to the individual named in the plan to initiate responses to bomb threats. 

  • Contact law enforcement. 

  • Have the person who receives the threat fill out the checklist in Appendix C

  • Evacuate the workplace. 

  • Have law enforcement officials conduct the search and investigation. The employer should not order employees to look for bombs! 

  • Keep all staff out of the building until they get an “all clear” from the police or bomb squad.

2 Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 29 CFR 1910.38 

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