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Plant disasters and other workplace-related emergencies can happen anywhere, at any time. While it’s impossible to fully avoid some accidents, preparation ensures that employers and their employees know what to do when an emergency occurs. Having an actionable plan in place that prepares all involved parties on proper emergency management not only helps simplify remediation, but can also prevent further issues from occurring.

Technology plays an increasingly vital role in assessing workplace hazards ahead of an incident, implementing emergency response activities, and managing post-incident mitigation. Let’s review some best practice tips for managing plant disasters, and the ways technology can help at each step.

Before An Incident Occurs: Understanding The Risks

With a few critical measures in place ahead of a facility accident, employers and employees can better react when unplanned situations arise.

  1. Prepare a comprehensive response plan. The first step in controlling any emergency situation is to have a well-developed emergency action plan (EAP) that outlines both employer and worker actions during an incident. Your EAP should describe proper responses to different types of emergencies and address specifics of the facility layout, including structural features and emergency systems. A comprehensive plan also includes hazard assessments of physical or chemical hazards from either inside or outside the facility, and should be updated whenever new hazards are identified. Workers are a great resource when drafting EAPs because of their familiarity with the potential hazards in their daily tasks. Today, some of the better incident management software options offer mobile apps for front line employees to easily report incidents as they occur, and simplify tracking of injuries, near-misses and hazards. A detailed picture of present issues will help you better anticipate and prevent future incidents.  
  2. Conduct training. Worker training is an employer’s first line of defense for preventing incidents from occurring in the first place. Training helps employees understand their roles and responsibilities during an emergency, preventing disorganized responses or evacuations that might cause additional injuries and property damage. There are a host of on-demand training options which make it easy to assign and administer modular courses that workers can complete on their own schedules and pace. With at-a-glance management and completion tracking tools, employers can confirm training requirements are being met and no critical courses — like EAP training — fall through the cracks.
  3. Understand chemical hazards and communicate potential dangers with local first responders. Several high-profile incidents, including the West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion and container storage explosion in Tianjin, China, highlight the importance of sharing hazardous chemical information with key stakeholders and emergency responders. Required by the EPA for facilities with hazardous materials present at or above stated threshold amounts, Tier II Hazardous Chemical Inventory Reports make information about the types, quantities and locations of hazardous chemicals at a given facility available to local responders in advance of an emergency. A robust chemical management software program identifies specific reporting requirements based on your chemical inventories, and helps you to complete and submit those reports as needed. Facilities can further supplement the sharing of critical chemical inventory information with community stakeholders using chemical management software that provides site-based hazardous chemical inventory information directly to area emergency responders, including critical diagrams that map chemical storage locations onto facility floor plans.

During The Emergency: First Focus On Worker Safety

Time is critical when a workplace disaster occurs. Having a well-developed emergency plan and executing proper worker training helps ensure an effective emergency response.

  1. Identify employees who need immediate medical attention. Follow your existing emergency response procedures and contact internal and, if necessary, external emergency response personnel and direct them to injured employees. If a “911” call has to be made, make sure first responders know exactly where to go and that paths to the injured are unobstructed. Place some of your own employees at strategic points to flag down paramedics so they can reach injured employees as quickly as possible. This is especially important in cases where multiple injuries occur in separate areas. Having quick and easy access to safety data sheets (SDSs) is critical when hazardous chemicals are involved. A software system that offers quick access to electronic SDS libraries makes it easier to locate the first-aid measures found on these documents so medical responders know what treatments are necessary and safe.  
  2. Secure the area affected and begin to mitigate any immediate risks. After the immediate needs of injured employees have been addressed, secure the worksite to prevent risk of additional incidents. For instance, in the event of a chemical spill, use physical barriers to control the spreading and deploy emergency communications to prevent employees from going into the area. This is where having specific emergency notifications for different classes of incidents (e.g., chemical spill, fire, etc.) is especially useful. Also, be sure to reinforce that your own employees are not to conduct tasks delegated to outside emergency response personnel. While EAPs should already make these expectations clear, you might need to reiterate this point due to the panic that accompanies major safety incidents. Securing the worksite not only reduces additional risks, but also preserves evidence needed later during the incident investigation process.

After The Accident: Mitigating Further Issues From Occurring

Focus on preventing future incidences from happening.

  1. Launch the reporting and notification process. Depending on the scale of the incident, there’s a number of reporting requirements that must be enacted in a limited amount of time. All employers are required to notify OSHA within eight hours of a fatality, and report work-related hospitalizations, amputations, or eye loss within 24 hours. Incidents involving hazardous chemicals require separate reporting. Hazmat emergencies or spills related to substances designated as "extremely hazardous" under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) must be reported to state and local authorities in addition to meeting federal reporting requirements. Depending on the scope and location of the spill, other reporting requirements may also apply, including the National Response Center (NRC) and Department of Transportation (DOT). Having the tools to quickly and comprehensively complete any necessary reports is critical. Today's electronic EHS management solutions help identify what reports are required based on the spill situation and aid in reporting form completion to stay compliant with regulatory requirements and avoid penalties for failing to notify proper authorities in a timely manner.
  2. Review safety procedures and make any necessary updates. In addition to looking at and amending the initial cause — or causes — of the incident, employers should also examine how safety procedures were carried out and make improvements. A thorough Job Safety Analysis (JSA) is necessary to evaluate workplace hazards, while existing analyses should be reviewed following an incident to identify potential weaknesses and revised as needed. Here again the right EHS software can greatly simplify the creation, management and implementation of JSAs in industries like manufacturing where jobs and tasks may vary widely, and help capture and manage corrective actions associated with hazard identification. The best systems run off a centralized platform available across multiple locations via the cloud, giving workers better access to the JSAs’ hazard and preventive information to work more safely and efficiently.

You can’t prevent every incident that might arise, but armed with the right software system, you can more cost-effectively gain better transparency into the workplace hazards that exists, better manage emergencies and corrective actions, streamline compliance, and ultimately improve the safety and wellbeing of your employees.

Phil N. Molé, MPH is an EHS & Sustainability Expert at VelocityEHS, an award-winning cloud software provider that delivers a comprehensive suite of EHS products that help companies better manage incidents, inspections, SDS/Chemical inventories, compliance issues and reporting.

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