“Plan for the worst, hope for the best”, “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”, “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. I am sure many of you reading this today have heard of these mantras before. You have also probably heard people say (or even said yourself) “Oh, that will never happen here” or “We have gone so many days/weeks/months/years without an incident, we will be fine”.
People who talk about the former phrases can often deal with emergency situations in a much better way than those who say the latter phrases, as they are not complacent or over-confident about the safety performance of their business/site/location. Particularly for high-hazard process sites such as oil refineries and other petro-chemical plants, emergency situations can have devastating consequences, not just for the personnel on-site, but for those off-site as well. Examples of incidents where there were devastating consequences for the wider population include:
- Bhopal, India, 2nd December 1984 – A massive release of toxic gas (MIC – Methyl Isocynate) quickly spread from the plant to the nearby towns and villages. Some estimates say up to 500,00 people were affected, with some survivors suffering after-effects to this very day
- West, Texas, USA, 17th April 2013 – What started as a structural fire on a building storing ammonium nitrate, resulted in a huge explosion killing 15 people and injuring over 150 others. The company was insured for $1 million USD, but estimated total damage to schools, public housing and other areas ranges from $100 million USD to $250 Million USD
- Beirut, Lebanon, 4th August 2020 – one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history occurs, killing over 200 people, wounding over 7000, and causing an estimated $15 Billion USD damage bill
These are just three of the many horror stories that have occurred through history. This does not mean that you are safe in a lower-risk environment, such as an office or cinema, however. Just one emergency situation can go so badly wrong, that the business is never able to recover. This could be due to total loss of an asset, or the insurance held does not cover the cost of repairs/rebuild. So whilst people may not have been hurt or killed, they now cannot pay the bills or feed their families, as no businesses means no salary for anyone. Even if you could afford it, you may not be allowed to continue with the business anymore. The local enforcing authorities may simply shut you down; customers may not want to do business with you anymore; even public outcry may be enough to force permanent closure of the site as they do not want a “dangerous” company operating in their town/city/neighborhood. So how can we mitigate the effects of these types of incidents? Of course, prevention is always better than the cure, but our article today is going to focus on what we should do, if the worst were to happen. Firstly, let us discuss some of the different types of emergency we may have to deal with in the workplace.
Exactly what types of emergency we may need to deal with can depend upon many factors. What is the type of business that we run? What are the hazards involved on site? Are we located in a built-up area such as a town or city? Or a more remote location such as offshore, or in a jungle or desert? What is the security situation of our site (within or nearby a warzone, a high-value target such as a bank or airport)? There is no definitive list, but some of the more common emergencies we may be faced with include fires, explosions, medical emergencies, collapse of buildings and other structures such as scaffolding, natural disasters (such as flooding, earthquakes and so on) and terrorist attacks. Each of these emergencies can be totally unique, so a “copy and paste” approach should not be taken. Only one factor may change, but this would totally alter how we deal with the emergency. For example, in a building fire people can escape using the fire exits straight away. Attempting this during an in-flight fire on an aircraft would be suicide (The story of Icarus springs to mind). In this situation, unless we had parachutes and were competent in their use, we would have to wait until the aircraft had made an emergency landing before we could escape. So now we know some of the emergencies that we may face, how do we actually plan for dealing with them? Well, let us look at the things we need to consider, so we can plan for and manage them effectively.
What is your risk level?
First, are we a high-risk or low-risk site? Dealing with a fire in an office would require totally different measures and competence than dealing with a fire onboard an offshore oil-rig. What would define as high-risk and low-risk would come from a thorough risk assessment of our site and operations, to find out what hazards we have, and therefore the level of risk involved. Something else to consider is our location. If we are located within a town or city, hospitals, fire brigades, police and other help will not be too far away. Being located in the middle of a desert is a totally different story, however. You may have to invest in your own emergency services personnel and facilities, as government help is too far away. As an example, during my time in Oman, the sites I would often visit had their own fire brigades and clinics. There were even airfields, so that people could be medevacked by jet aircraft to the capital for hospital treatment. Bear in mind, some of these locations were a four-hour flight away from the capital Muscat (which translated to about 15 hours by road). Something else to consider is who would be affected. As a part of your emergency plans, you may have to liaise with the local authorities and emergency services, but also utility companies, and public representatives, so everybody knows what to do if alarms and sirens start ringing through the neighborhood. How many people might be affected is also a consideration. Are you just looking at a handful of people who can be evacuated by a small vehicle, or thousands who need to be told to stay indoors or evacuate to a designated area?
Something else to think of is what do people need to do in an emergency situation? Is their only role to evacuate to an assembly point, safe refuge or other designated place of safety and await further instructions? Or are they the OSC (On Scene Commander) trying to co-ordinate a successful rescue of personnel, and resolution to the situation? These roles and responsibilities should be very clearly written into the emergency procedure, and the people involved need to be competent for their designated role. The people writing the procedure also need to be competent themselves. A poorly written or ineffective procedure can be just as bad, if not worse than, not having one at all. In the case of competence of personnel who simply need to evacuate, this could be done via receiving instruction and information on escape routes and assembly points during induction training, with regular drills held to keep the information fresh in people’s minds. More complex roles would require more complex training. You may have fire wardens (marshals), first-aiders and medical personnel, personnel trained in the use of fire extinguishers (or even full-time firefighters), rescue-at-height personnel, lifeguards, rescue divers, security teams… the list goes on. The H2S ADCO Incident in Abu Dhabi on 3rd February 2009 is an example of what can happen if people do not know what to do in an emergency (H2S Release Accident ADCO Abudhabi – YouTube).
It is important to remember that some of this training you may be able to deliver yourself in-house. More complicated topics may need to be taught by specialists and experts, however. So, if you are not sure, as always, seek advice from consultants and your local enforcing authorities and government agencies for help and advice.
Consider special cases
Staying on the topic of people, you should also consider “Special Cases”. Disabled people or those with injuries (e.g., using crutches) may have difficulty escaping buildings on their own, particularly when using stairs. Specialist equipment such as evacuation chairs can help here. Some older people may also have limited mobility and agility, making their escape not as rapid as other people. Blind people or other persons with ill-health regarding their sight cannot see their way, and deaf people would be confused, seeing lots of people running around but having no idea why that is so. In these cases, it would be advisable to have an “Escort” with them, to help them understand what was going on, and what they needed to do. Sight-impaired people could be physically led to safety, being coached verbally throughout about where they were, what they were doing, and what would happen next. Deaf or persons hard of hearing could be paired up with lip-readers or people who can use sign language, again, to help communicate what was happening and why.
“a lone worker could be someone working away from everybody else, on a very large site”
Lone workers are another group to consider. They are at risk mainly because they are on their own, so they are their own help effectively. Be careful, a lone worker is not just someone working on site on their own and no one else is around. It could be they are working away from everybody else, on a very large site. So, whilst other people are present, they do not know what is going on with the person working by themselves. The very young may lack the perception and understanding of the seriousness of the situation, so education from an early age would benefit them. As an example, in Japan children are taught from a very young age about earthquakes. Drills and practice in classrooms and school grounds are held regularly, and there are even apps and mobile games that teach the children about earthquake safety.
Here I have linked a video showing this, and it also shows how students are assigned to help each other, with some students helping their disabled brethren escape the school. (Earthquake Drill in Japan – YouTube)
When developing emergency procedures, in terms of the equipment that is required, most people think that they just need to buy a few first-aid kits and fire extinguishers, and that will do. Once again, exactly what we need depends upon what the emergency is, how many people are involved, and so on. Other emergency equipment could include, but is not limited to, alarms and sirens, ESDs (Emergency Shutdown Systems), back-up power supplies and computer systems, stretchers, barriers, sprinkler and deluge systems, and so on. The same goes for the facilities needed. A painted area in the carpark designated “assembly point” is simply not good enough. For starters, you may need more than one assembly point, in case one is compromised. The same goes for your escape routes. Also, escape routes should lead to a place of safety, so again, a route that takes you to an assembly point in a car park now presents risks of people being struck by vehicles. You might in some cases not even be able to go to these. For example, if you are in a high-rise building, you may be asked to escape upwards to a higher floor. Some sites may have a safe refuge, or a “remain in place” policy, but this can again have disastrous consequences if it is inappropriate for the site, or it is not carried out properly. This was just one of the issues identified as a result of the investigation into the devastating Grenfell tower block fire in London, United Kingdom on 14th June 2017, which left 72 dead and 70 others injured.
Case study: Grenfell
Speaking of this particular incident, you also need to think about access for emergency services. In the case of Grenfell, it was road access that was the issue, with parked cars on the street and limited space causing major issues for fire engines and other emergency vehicles. We need to think about how are they getting on to site? Do they know the site well in terms of layout, hazards and so on? Do they know who to speak to and co-ordinate with? Drills are a very good way to make sure that this is the case. Not only will your own staff and the emergency services be aligned in what they need to do, this is a great way of getting your staff involved in the process, giving them more buy-in and ownership, meaning that they are more likely to follow the procedures. You should never solely rely on the emergency services for help though. Due to some of the issues I have already explained, the emergency services may not have the right equipment for the emergency, or not have the equipment at all. Again, they may be very far away from your site, so may not reach your location in time to be of any help. Even if your emergency plan is to escape the building and wait for their arrival, that is better than nothing.
Closing statement Emergency procedures are not a “nice to have”, but a “must have” for any business. If emergencies are not handled correctly, the consequences can be devastating for more than just your employees, but also their families and friends, your customers, and even the wider public. If you are unsure of anything, approach your government and local authorities and agencies, consultants and other competent people, to ensure you get it right first time, every time. Involve your workforce in the development of the procedures also. They may come up with ideas and thoughts no one else has considered. Indeed, this consultation could also be a legal requirement in some countries. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best, so you are prepared for emergencies, just in case. It is better to have effective, workable emergency procedures and never use them; than need them, but not have them, and therefore suffer the consequences as a result.