Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Evacuation Planning: A Matter of Life and Death; Are Your Employees Ready to Leave the Building in the Worst of Circumstances? If Not, Your Planning Should Start Here

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Evacuation Planning: A Matter of Life and Death; Are Your Employees Ready to Leave the Building in the Worst of Circumstances? If Not, Your Planning Should Start Here

Article excerpt

Emergencies, both inside and outside your E facility, may require evacuations to protect your personnel. Being capable of promptly initiating an evacuation, ensuring that occupants take appropriate actions during the evacuation and being able to account for people after an evacuation may make the difference between life and death for the people in your facility.

The design of your building plays an important role in evacuation capabilities. For the purpose of this article, we'll assume you are past the design stage and have to make the best of your current structure(s).

An effective evacuation begins with a well-pre pared plan. The planning process should begin with a risk assessment. This will help you identify what types of emergencies both inside and outside your facility might require evacuation or other emergency response actions. All foreseeable events should be considered. The probability of the event occurring and the severity of its impact should be used to prioritize preparation efforts.

Just to prime your thought processes, these are a few common events that may require an evacuation:

* Fires

* Explosions

* Chemical releases

* Power outages

* Severe weather

Evacuations should be planned in levels. Some emergencies may require the evacuation of only a small area near the problem, others might require the entire building be evacuated and even larger emergencies might require the entire site be evacuated.

Depending upon the size and layout of your facility, your planning should also include provisions for sheltering in place. This concept involves getting people out of the immediate area of the emergency but not all the way out of the building. Shelter in place is also required if critical operations cannot be left immediately. For example, such operations include the control room at a power generation or chemical plant, or a surgical suite in a hospital. In this type of area, the facility must be designed to protect the occupants while they perform their duties. For example, the design features of a chemical plant control building such as location, construction, and air handling and filtering systems are intended to provide the extra time necessary to allow the safe shutdown of processes prior to evacuation.


Communications during an emergency must motivate people to take action. Overcoming apathy is a more pressing concern than worrying about causing panic. Most people have had at least a few experiences with false fire alarms. People also tend to trust their own senses as the best source of information. This means that if there is no visible smoke or fire, people tend to doubt the fire alarm. This problem can become more severe in non-fire emergencies such as hazardous chemical spills. The vapors from a spill may often be invisible yet still create a hazard to occupants.

I saw this human behavior tendency demonstrated with a group that should know better -- fire instructors. Many years ago, while I was attending a large conference for fire instructors, the fire alarm in the hotel began to alarm. The appropriate action would have been to evacuate the building but the group standing outside the hotel was quite small. The rest of the occupants' responses ranged from completely ignoring the alarm to searching for the fire without benefit of protective clothing and equipment. We found out later as the local fire department arrived that the alarm was not false; the kitchen was on fire.

In another instance, workers in a manufacturing facility continued to operate a machine in spite of the fact the machine next to theirs was on fire. When we asked the workers why they hadn't evacuated immediately, they said the smoke wasn't that bad and they wanted to "catch up on their quota." The "not bad" condition they were describing was smoke filling the area from a 30-foot ceiling down to about 10 feet above the floor in a large manufacturing area. …

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