By Adam R. Young, James L. Curtis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen
Seyfarth Synopsis: With Hurricane Ian drenching the Gulf Coast, Florida, and the Atlantic coastal states, employers are facing daunting emergencies, safety and health risks, property damage, employee disruption, and re-building.
This blog contains an updated primer on (1) preparing for an emergency; (2) taking action during an emergency; and (3) cleaning up and resuming business after an emergency.
Preparing for an Emergency
29 C.F.R. 1910.38 requires all workplaces with more than 10 employees to develop a written Emergency Action Plan (EAP), when required by an OSHA standard, to identify and coordinate necessary employer and employee actions during an emergency. At a minimum, the EAP must include the following elements:
- Means of reporting emergencies (fires, floods, etc.);
- Evacuation procedures and assigned exit routes;
- Procedures to account for all employees following an evacuation;
- Procedures to be followed by employees who must remain behind to attend to critical plant operations before evacuating;
- Rescue and/or medical duties for employees who are assigned and trained to perform them; and
- Names or job titles of people who can be contacted for more information about the plan.
In addition to these required elements, it is recommended that employers also consider including the following in the EAP:
- Procedures for protecting employees from COVID-19 during the emergency;
- The location of the nearest hospital or emergency medical center;
- The type of alarm system used to notify employees of an emergency;
- Procedures for protecting information including procedures for storing or maintaining critical documents and records;
- The location and permissible uses of protective equipment such as portable defibrillators, first aid kits, dust masks, fire extinguishers, etc.; and
- The location of televisions or radios for further information during a disaster.
Ensuring the development of an effective EAP also requires the employer to train employees to understand their roles and responsibilities under the plan. When conducting this training, the employer must address literacy, language, and cultural barriers to ensure that the training is effective. Employers also must document the training.
OSHA has posted links and recommendations on its website to help employers prepare for hurricanes. The website includes tips regarding how to create evacuation plans and assemble emergency supply kits. The Environmental Protection Agency also has provided tips related to hurricane preparedness on its website.
Responding to an Emergency
Communication during an emergency is critical to maintain organization and prevent panic and injuries. For example, not all emergencies require an evacuation of the workplace. In some cases, such as flooding, storms, or the release of biological or chemical agents, staying indoors is safer for employees. The first questions most people ask during an emergency is “should I stay or should I go?” Employers can guide employees as to the appropriate course of action by having an alarm system that emits a different signal for “evacuate” emergencies than for “stay put” emergencies. Alternatively, the alarm system could be programmed to give specific verbal instructions following the initial alert. Employers must consider the needs of disabled employees (e.g. those who are hearing or visually impaired) in selecting any alarm system.
Employers should have an effective means of communicating with employees about the following during an emergency:
- Whether to evacuate or stay put;
- How and where to get information about the emergency itself;
- What areas of the building to avoid;
- How and when it is safe to return to the work area; and
- How and when it is acceptable to contact family members and loved one.
Picking Up the Pieces
Once the proverbial dust settles after an emergency, hazards to employees can still remain. For example, downed power lines in a flooded parking lot can injure or kill employees leaving the building after the storm passes. Hazards are even greater for employees who are tasked with cleaning up after an emergency.
Employees who are actually performing clean-up work after a flood, storm, earthquake, or other disaster may be exposed to one or more of the following hazards:
- Exposure to COVID-19 hazards,
- Exposure to hazardous materials such as asbestos, mold, lead, or chemicals;
- Downed power lines and trees;
- Heat illness, including the complications of wearing face masks in the muggy August climate;
- Confined spaces;
- Blood borne diseases or other contagions;
- Mosquito borne diseases; and
- Structural destabilization.
OSHA’s website provides a Hurricane eMatrix for Hurricane Response and Recovery Work, outlining the most commonly performed duties during hurricane response and recovery work, and the hazards employees could face. OSHA has developed specific standards to address many of these hazards.
It is imperative that employers develop and implement organized and clearly communicated procedures for responding to a disaster. We recommend that employers consider the following:
- Develop an EAP that covers a wide variety of potential emergencies and gives employees clear guidance on what to do in each scenario;
- Be cognizant of hazards employees may face even after the immediate danger has passed;
- Train employees in evacuation plans and other emergency response procedures;
- Conduct a job hazard analysis and review applicable OSHA standards before assigning any employees to perform clean-up work; and
- Evaluate the safety record of any independent contractor hired to perform clean-up work, including investigating the contractor’s worker’s compensation history, its OSHA logs, and its history of citations from OSHA.
For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.