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From Ground Control to Major Tom. Tom Petty confirming that he Won’t Back Down. Kaiser chief’s Predicting a Riot and The Fray trying to Save a Life, it becomes apparent that emergency situations arise on occasion, to challenge the best of us.
Why then, if an emergency of some description and effect, is a not an entirely infrequent event with which each of us may find ourselves confronted, do they often result in severe outcomes or an aftermath of negative consequences?
To answer this question, it may be helpful to revisit the definition of emergency. In accordance with the Oxford dictionary, an emergency is: a sudden, unforeseen happening which requires action to correct or to protect lives and/or property.
In my experience, the words sudden and unforeseen are the key terms for what constitutes an emergency. In fact, I would go as far as to say that there are cases where the emergency situation was in fact anticipated; however, the sudden aspect part of the statement is what may leave us relatively paralysed when the event presents itself.
To pair the meaning of the word sudden with that of unexpected is perhaps the reason that many individuals can find themselves under a spell of illusion when it comes to what is unfolding at that moment.
Obviously, the nature and severity of the emergency to which we find ourselves subjected, plays a major role.
Human nature, being what it is may bring about several varying responses within a collective group of people who may be exposed to the same, possibly threatening event.
“human nature may bring about varying responses within a group of people exposed to the same, possibly threatening event”
Perception: “The way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted” Oxford
Some time back, I found myself head on with the challenge of ensuring that employees were protected against the hazards of a confined space to which I had never could have envisaged the magnitude. The work piece was circular and spanned at least 15 metres in diameter. Inside this monstrous circle were what felt like hundreds (but realistically more like tens) of sections that through the process of fabrication became increasingly confined as the job progressed. This was a huge undertaking as due to the scale of the job, it was an 18-month project. Obviously, in terms of the health and safety, we had to get it right.
This was not one of those quick in and out jobs. It was months of hazardous confined space work that included all disciplines of engineering and required the knowledge and input of many human beings for its manufacture to successfully realise.
Months of planning and organising was dedicated to the health and safety management of this project prior to the kick-off. Every eventuality was considered to the point of perfection.
No expense was spared, no box left unticked. On reflection, it was to date in my career one of the easiest undertakings in that everything requested in terms of resources for health and safety was approved immediately and without question. It was like a shopping spree at Harrods on an unlimited budget (if they would have had a section dedicated to cater for such!)
It was a 24-hour operation so on entering the workshop on a sunny Tuesday morning, it was to my surprise that I heard one of our recently installed, (top of the range) gas detectors screaming in dismay.
How long this had been the case was unconfirmed at the time and an immediate frantic visual inspection revealed that everything appeared normal. On noting my entrance, the supervisor informed me of the malfunction of the gas detector. I immediately doubted this was possible and enquired as to the daily inspection of the gas equipment in the immediate area. This had not yet been completed as no one had been working in that section of the workplace for a few hours.
On inspection, it was found that there was not a gas leak, however, the gas supply had not been isolated by the employee who had previously been pre-heating with a gas torch. The flame had extinguished and the gas supply left open. At this time, some years later, I can still reflect on this incident as strange. Surely when so much time and dedication had been invested into ensuring that everyone was on par with what to do when and what to look out for that it could not have been ignorance? Training could not be questioned as this was the focal point for many a month before starting this project? This a perfect example of how things, no matter how well planned can result in disastrous situations. None of the witnesses questioned could declare that the alarm had not been heard although the immediate assumption when noted that the area was at that time unoccupied was that of a defunct gas detection unit rather than an actual concern… the mind boggles.
As noted earlier, perception and the reaction of people due to this factor may pave the way for difficulty in potential emergency situations.
With the above in mind, I remain steadfast in the belief that emergency situations result in less severe or often no consequences at all if adequate thought and planning is dedicated prior to such an event occurring. Although the element of the unexpected may still be present in a trying situation the fact that it may not be first time that one is experiencing the thought process of how to react, what to do and the possible pros and cons of each move from that point forward will reassure most people when faced with a daunting situation.
In essence, at the workplace we are afforded with the luxury of doing just that. Determining what can go wrong and what to do if it does.
As mundane as the term, Emergency Procedures may at first be acknowledged as by most, they are in fact the theoretical composition of the difference between life and death. These procedures should be comprehensive yet unpretentious, to enable any user to decipher a plan of action should the unthinkable present itself.
They should be written with the audience in mind, be comprised of step-by-step instructions, and be practical in their delivery.
Emergency procedures need to flow, they need to provide the guidance required when one or more persons would need them most.
So, what should be included in a workable emergency plan?
The following concepts should form part of any kind of emergency plan.
Potential emergency scenarios
This would translate as the potential hazardous situations as identified by the specific business unit or operation. As with most things’ safety related, the list will be compiled following a thorough evaluation of processes, resources involved and stored in those processes and any additional threatening situations that may arise naturally, traditionally, or even sometimes beyond our control.
In addition, the surrounding area should be considered in terms of ‘what the neighbours may be getting up to’ and how that could pose a possible threat.
Various possibilities that could be identified in the plan (depending on the nature of the operation and by no means exhaustive) may include:
• The normal: Fire and gas explosions
• The natural: Floods or electric storms
• The traditional: Strikes or protest action that are usually marked by labour or unions and can often occur like clockwork
• The Injury on Duty: Depending on the severity
• The Environmental: Which would include spills or violations that require immediate action
A good modus operandi is to involve a selection of employees from across the board in identifying and deciding which situations may constitute emergencies in the workplace. The more experienced and long-standing employees obviously can provide a wealth of information as to past occurrences and emergencies. A younger, less experienced individual may highlight a concern that is no longer really considered by the more experienced member as being a potential threat. Management, Health and Safety representatives, Maintenance, Union officials and the Safety team are all valuable contributors in ensuring a comprehensive outlook on what future workplace emergencies may entail.
Key personnel appointments
Members of the work force must be aware of their responsibilities in case of emergency.
Fire Marshalls, Emergency Co-ordinators, Fire Team Members, Sweepers; they all have to know what is required to ensure that time and resources are utilised to ensure the least possible interruptions to the objective when the time is nigh.
Access routes to safety leave the area for the various scenarios should be pre-planned, documented and publicised for all employees, visitors or clients.
The team would need to know what is available and the location thereof. This in terms of fire equipment, stretchers, accessible telephones, alarm systems and even emergency numbers should the need arise.
Obviously, there are many aspects to a comprehensive emergency plan and its corresponding procedures. The summary as above touches on the bare basics and is by no means a complete account of what is required. For the purpose of this article, however, it forms a basis on where to start planning.
Now on to my favourite, most rewarding part of the job…. training! Having a host of magical instructions will not amount to anything if employees do not clearly understand what is expected.
The specific appointments as mentioned earlier, will require training to enable the role to successfully execute the duties expected. Fire team members need to understand the science behind what causes a fire and how to extinguish one. First Aiders require the knowledge to tend to any minor injuries that may have occurred. Fire Marshalls require the knowledge to set the teams in action and achieve a short-lived emergency situation.
A practical, mock emergency is the best way of achieving this goal. This being said, they may be of little value if not held on a frequent basis. If these exercises are recurrent, the more self-confident the individual employees become in performing their specific duties until these actions become second nature to all involved. The frequency on which these exercises are performed will depend on the nature of the organisation and that of the workforce. It goes without saying that one does not want to create the ‘cry wolf’ scenario however the frequency should not be of such a nature that employees reach the stage where they ‘can’t remember when we last had one,’ either.
The benefits of conducting mock emergencies on a more frequent than not basis lends itself to ensure that new employees are included in the process. This can prove advantageous in an environment where there is a trend of a high turnover of employees and contractors due to project requirements or if labour is managed on a workload specific basis. It ensures that workshops (at the very least) are familiar with the routine and you can escape the status quo where everyone is fumbling around on the notification of the ‘annual mock emergency’.
In addition, it provides the opportunity for all involved to practise their skills and to refresh their memories. Ensuring that a mock drill is evaluated or scored on several key points creates and reveals opportunities for improvement in future drills or actual emergencies.
“having a host of magical instructions will not amount to anything if employees do not clearly understand what is expected”
A close second in achieving results and therefore included in my own company’s emergency training is what we refer to as a ‘Tabletop Emergency’. It is a given, that this method works better in some emergency scenarios than others however, where it appears to provide results that surpass, is when practicing the injury on duty scenario. A group of employees are required to congregate (pre-COVID, I’ve had an audience of up to 50 employees at a time) and a verbal account of the situation is delivered, including an anonymous victim. Following the amalgam of questions that germinate from the scenario (some more applicable than others as I’m yet to understand the relevance of, ‘what soccer team does he support?), the team nominate one employee to initiate the process by explaining, step-by-step what he would do if he found himself responsible to handle this situation. This includes all the basics such as requiring him to role-play the actual telephone call to the emergency services, including the reciting of the address all the way through to possibility of having to provide directions. Obstacles are thrown in his path such as when he reaches the emergency telephone, there is no service and as he retracts his own cellular device, he finds no airtime available. Other employees are called on to assist the original nominee and from that point it becomes a participative, informative session with a good dose of humour thrown in for good measure. This method changes the entire experience of conducting training of this nature in a classroom scenario (where it is likely to evolve into an actual emergency due to someone dying of boredom) and converts it into a lively and more importantly, memorable experience.
The roll call session. A critical element in accounting for everybody that was possibly on the premises. This section of the emergency procedure can often progress into an anarchic ‘catch up’ conference for employees. It is important at this phase to call order and be ruthless in achieving such. The physical action of conducting the roll call should be alternated during the practise drills as it may be only then that it comes to light that a particular person who may very well have this responsibility in an actual event, shakes in his boots when having to pronounce names correctly in front of a crowd. Not everybody has the same strengths when it comes to this needing to be done however ensuring the workforce are respectful and disciplined during the roll call makes it easier on these reserved types. Practice and feedback and even placing the ‘instigators’ in charge of the roll call during a drill assists in driving this home.
The endless debate as to how and where to keep the roll call list both current and always available came to an end at our workplace when a flip top box was erected at each exit point, adorned with the words, Roll Call List on the front. The roll call list is now always printed and available come rain hail or shine as it is reviewed weekly, updated as required and placed in the box, ready for action.
Two-way radios are a massive plus during the roll call phase to enable communication between the emergency team members and Fire Marshalls from the various exits and assembly points.
Employees are rehearsed into exiting at the emergency point closest to them at the time of the emergency. This often results in one team member being separated from the rest with no one certain of the exact whereabouts of that person. A quick call on the radio can confirm if the ‘missing’ employee is at a different point or not. It saves valuable time in running around the buildings to conduct a manual check.
In terms of the ‘Sweepers’ whose task includes making sure that everybody has left the emergency scene, it is important to remember to check bathrooms, tea rooms, sick bays and any area that may be considered remote within the workplace for possible occupants. A person that is unaccounted for can be cause for delays in emergency procedures being fulfilled not to mention the added stress of not being able to find someone who is potentially trapped inside. Often the individual concerned is simply found to be on a leisurely stroll to the bathroom to combat an emergency of a different kind whilst his name has been called three times already. The Sweepers are important in these scenarios and have the responsibility of getting all unaware employees, to the roll call.
To conclude, whilst Kenny Loggins is doing his best to navigate the Highway to the Danger Zone and Gloria Gaynor is proclaiming her Will to Survive. We Will Never Walk Alone according to Elvis so best we make sure the necessary planning is in place to guarantee we stay Alive, in keeping with Pearl Jam.
Sarah Olivier is an SHE Practitioner at K5 Heavy Engineering. She holds a Baccalaureus Technologiae in Safety Management from the University of South Africa (UNISA).
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