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Employers should have emergency evacuation plans in place to safeguard their workers


Emergency preparedness was catapulted to the top of the business agenda following the Sept. 11 terrorist atrocities, but experts now fear the development of action plans may be put on the back burner as concerns fade.

"After time passes we tend to forget about disaster planning and preparedness. Immediately after (Sept. 11) there was a lot of attention focused on it, but it has declined a little bit," said David McEntire, coordinator of the University of North Texas' Institute of Emergency Administration and Planning.

"But it is fair to say more people recognize the importance of planning and preparedness," he said.

While terrorist acts may be the focus of most emergency planning attention at present, in reality there is far more risk from the likes of tornadoes and other weather-related disasters, hazardous materials leaks and fire. In many such cases speedy evacuation of any affected building is essential.

Nasario Gonzales, safety and health manager for technical support and outreach programs at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regional office in Dallas, said employers' emergency and fire prevention plans are, in part, dictated by Federal Code 29 CFR 1910.

Among the requirements, OSHA's code 1910.38 states that employers' emergency action plans must include emergency escape procedures and emergency escape route assignments. The plan must be in writing and must be made available to employees on request. An business with 10 or fewer employees is permitted to communicate its plan verbally.

OSHA also mandates that an employer should train a sufficient number of persons to assist with a safe and orderly emergency evacuation. No guidelines are given regarding what represents a sufficient number. An employer also must have an alarm system with a distinct signal for each type of emergency, and there must be procedures to account for all employees after evacuating the premises. Checks to ensure buildings meet local and federal standards can be carried out by an inspector from the OSHA regional office or officials from a local fire department.

Gonzales said most businesses he has inspected for OSHA have some type of written plan. However, sometimes the plans are not in full compliance with OSHA standards. If a business is found to be in violation of the rules a fine may be imposed of between $100 and $5,000, depending on the severity of the violation, Gonzales said.

As well as ensuring the safety of employees, there are several other reasons why a business should have an emergency action plan, experts say.

"Not planning for an emergency can be devastating to a business," McEntire said. "There are public relations issues. Company customers or employees can form lawsuits. (The company's) reputation can be hurt, and that can affect future business."

Before compiling an emergency evacuation plan, a business should begin by understanding its vulnerabilities, McEntire said.
Safety experts say employers should be aware of the type of disaster that could occur, whether it be a natural disaster, shooting, terrorist attack, biological warfare or something else. They also need to be very familiar with their building's layout, the number of stairwells and whether the building has fire sprinklers or fire doors.

The second step is to consider the number of people in the building and the best procedures for their evacuation. Depending on the type of emergency, that could mean going down stairwells or heading to the roof for helicopter rescue, McEntire said. An emergency plan also needs to take into account and make arrangements for the elderly, disabled and those with language differences, he said.

The Dallas Infomart has had an extensive emergency plan in place for some time.

"It is already sufficient and far-reaching, and we feel that it continues to be excellent. It covers a full range of emergencies," said Nancy Windrow-Pearce, director of marketing for the Infomart.

With more than 100 tenants on seven floors, the Infomart has about 3,000 people under its roof. The emergency action plans are overseen by Roger Harris, director of security, and a security staff of 20, with additional outsourced staff from the Dallas Police Department.

Smaller offices and buildings, however, may not have such comprehensive resources -- and safety managers often are the first to go when a company tightens its belt, one safety expert said. But several resources exist that can help such companies devise an emergency action plan.

OSHA, for example, refers businesses to its OSHA Training Institute in Mesquite. Another option is to use a safety management consultant. The services of Mesquite-based safety consultants Horton Environmental Services, for example, cost from $200 for small businesses to 5 cents per square foot for larger ones. Local chapters of the Association of Contingency Planners have information about safety professionals.

But even nonspecialists can devise an emergency evacuation plan.

"A lot of it is just common sense," McEntire said.

He advises those handling an evacuation plan for a business to speak to emergency or risk managers or the American Red Cross and read about disaster planning.

"The plan doesn't have to be 100 pages thick," McEntire said. "Just have steps prepared to take in case something goes wrong."

Credit for this article goes to Sandra Zaragoza who's a Staff Writer with the Dallas Business Journal.

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