Workplace Emergency Plans

You need to have a plan ready in case an emergency happens at your workplace.

By Alexandra Walsh

Nobody expects an emergency or a disaster—especially one that personally affects them, their employees, and their business.

Yet the simple truth is you only have to turn on the nightly news to see that emergencies and disasters—everything from hurricanes to wildfires to active shooter incidents—can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. You and your employees could be forced to evacuate your company when you least expect it.

What is the best way to protect yourself, your workers, and your business? Expect the unexpected and develop a well thought out emergency action plan to guide you when immediate action is necessary.

The best way to prepare how to respond to an emergency is before it happens. Few people can think clearly and logically in a crisis situation. So it’s important to do so in advance—when you have plenty of time to be thorough.

Ask yourself what would you do if the worst happened? What if a fire broke out in your boiler room? What would you do if a tornado hit when you had workers in the field or on the road? What about a train carrying hazardous waste derailing while passing your facility?

Once you have identified possible emergencies, give serious thought to how they would affect you and your workers, and how you would respond.

Drafting an Emergency Action Plan

Not all employers are required to establish an action plan for an emergency. But even if you aren’t specifically required to do so, compiling an emergency action plan is a good way to protect yourself, your employees, and your business during an emergency. Such a plan covers designated actions employers and employees alike must take to ensure workplace safety.

Fortunately, putting together a comprehensive emergency action plan dealing with all types of issues specific to your worksite isn’t all that difficult.

Include your management team and employees in the process. Explain your goal is protecting lives and property in the event of an emergency and ask for their help in drawing up and putting into action an emergency plan. Everyone’s commitment and support are critical for the plan to be successful.

When developing an emergency action plan, it’s a good idea to look at a wide variety of potential emergencies that could occur in your workplace. It should be tailored to your worksites and include information about all potential kinds of emergencies.

Developing an emergency action plan means doing a hazard assessment, for example, to determine what, if any, physical or chemical hazards in your workplaces could cause an emergency. If you have more than one worksite, each site should have its own emergency action plan.

At a minimum, your emergency action plan must include the following:

  • Preferred method for reporting fires and other emergencies
  • Evacuation policy and procedure
  • Emergency escape procedures and routes (floor plans, workplace maps, safe or refuge areas)
  • Names, titles, departments, and phone numbers of persons inside and outside the company to contact for additional information or duties and responsibilities under the emergency plan
  • Procedures for employees staying inside to perform or shut down critical business operations, operate fire extinguishers, or perform services that cannot be shut down for every emergency alarm before evacuating
  • Rescue and medical duties for workers designated to perform them.

Your plan must also include a way to alert employees, including those with disabilities, to evacuate or take other action, and how to report emergencies. Among the steps you must take:

  • Make sure alarms are distinctive and recognizable as signals to evacuate or perform actions identified in your plan.
  • Make available a public-address system, portable radio unit, or other means to notify employees of the emergency and to contact local law enforcement, the fire department, and emergency medical services.
  • Test that alarms are able to be heard, seen, or recognized by everyone in the workplace. You might want to consider an auxiliary power supply in the event electricity is shut off.

Evacuation Policy and Procedures

A disorganized evacuation can result in confusion, injury, and property damage. So when developing your emergency action plan, determine the following:

  • Conditions under which an evacuation would be necessary
  • Clear chain of command and the person authorized to order an evacuation or shutdown
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits
  • Posting evacuation procedures where easily accessible to all employees
  • Procedures for assisting people with disabilities or who do not speak English
  • Designating which operations employees will continue to operate or shut down during an evacuation. They must be capable of recognizing when to abandon the operation and evacuate themselves.
  • System for accounting of personnel following an evacuation.

In the event of an emergency, local emergency officials may order you to evacuate your premises. In some cases, they may instruct you to shut off the water, gas, and electricity. Listen to radio or television newscasts to keep informed and follow whatever official orders you receive.

In the event of a fire, immediate evacuation to a predetermined area away from the facility is the best way to protect employees. On the other hand, evacuating employees may not be the best response to a toxic gas release emergency at a facility across town from your business.

The Role of Coordinators

When drafting your emergency action plan, select a responsible individual to lead and coordinate your emergency plan and evacuation. It is critical employees know who the coordinator is and understand that person has the authority to make decisions during emergencies.

The coordinator should be responsible for the following:

  • Assessing the situation to determine whether an emergency exists requiring activating emergency procedures
  • Supervising all efforts in the area, including evacuating personnel
  • Coordinating outside emergency services such as medical aid and local fire departments, and ensuring they are available and notified when necessary
  • Directing shutdown of operations when required.

Employees designated to assist in emergency evacuation procedures should be familiar with and trained in the complete layout of the workplace and various alternate escape routes. They, as well as all employees for that matter, should be aware of employees with special needs who may require extra assistance, how to use the buddy system, and hazardous areas to avoid during an emergency evacuation.

Planning for Rescue

It takes more than just willing hands to save lives. Untrained individuals may endanger themselves and those they are trying to help. For this reason, it is generally wise to leave rescue work to those who are trained, equipped, and certified to conduct rescues.

If you have operations that take place in permit-required confined spaces, your emergency action plan should include rescue procedures that specifically address entry into each confined space.

If your company doesn’t have a formal medical program, you may want to investigate ways to provide medical and first-aid services. If medical facilities are available near your worksite, you can make arrangements for them to handle emergency cases. Provide your employees with a written emergency medical procedure to minimize confusion.

The Role of Employees

The best emergency action plans involve including employees in the planning process, specifying what employees should do during an emergency, and ensuring employees receive proper training for emergencies.

When you include your employees in your planning, encourage them to offer suggestions about potential hazards, worst-case scenarios, and proper emergency responses. After you develop the plan, review it with your employees to make sure everyone knows what to do before, during, and after an emergency.

Keep a copy of your emergency action plan in a convenient place where employees can get to it or, better yet, provide all employees a copy.

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In the event of an emergency, it could be vital to have ready access to important personal information about your employees. This includes their home and cell phone numbers, names and phone numbers of their next of kin, and their medical information.

Educate your employees about the types of emergencies that may occur and train them in the proper course of action. The size of your workplace and workforce, the work processes used, materials handled, and the availability of on-site or outside resources will determine your training requirements.

Be sure all your employees understand the function and elements of your emergency action plan—types of potential emergencies, reporting procedures, alarm systems, evacuation plans, shutdown procedures. Discuss any special hazards you may have on-site—flammable materials, toxic chemicals, radioactive sources, or water-reactive substances.


Once you have reviewed your emergency action plan with your employees and everyone has had the proper training, it’s a good idea to hold practice drills to keep employees prepared. Include outside fire and police departments when possible and consider annual training.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.