Navigation Bar

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article


Writing Emergency Plans and Bringing Them to Life ...

Writing Emergency Plans
& Bringing Them to Life

UE News, March, 2002 David Kotelchuck

The six–month anniversary of September 11 reminds us, among other things, of the need to have written emergency plans, developed with care and foresight before we are hit with a disaster, whether it is a fire, a chemical spill or a calculated act of violence. As noted in this column previously, OSHA does not require written fire safety or other disaster plans, except for confined spaces, hazardous waste sites and hazardous waste transportation, storage or distribution sites. However, many states and municipalities do require written plans under their emergency planning laws.

These plans can play an important part in saving lives if and when a disaster hits. Every plant and company should have one, developed with union and worker input. Even existing plans are frequently out of date, or were out of date from the day they were written. Developing an emergency plan for your plant or office can be an important task for any union or union-management health and safety committee. And as the saying goes, we need to make this hay while the sun is still shining.

Elements of the final plan have to be communicated to every man and woman working in the facility –what good does a plan do if only a few people know about it? You can’t start looking for it and reading it when a fire begins, or a spill happens. Remember the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that spilled oil into the harbor in Valdez, Alaska? They had a nine-volume emergency plan, which none of the ship’s employees had ever read before the spill. And once disaster hit, they didn’t have time to start a reading club on it.

So an essential part of your workplace emergency plan has to be training sessions about it for everyone in the plant or office, repeated as needed (say every 4 to 6 months initially), and some written information about it for all employees. Everyone in the workplace has to know at least the plan’s essentials, so that they can make the right moves quickly, from memory, if and when needed.


  1. Multi-Hazards: The plan should cover a variety of hazards, not just fire or chemical hazards. Your health and safety committee needs to select which of the following hazards are appropriate to cover in your local plans:

  • Fires,

  • Hazardous Materials Incidents,

  • Violence (such as bomb threats and gun violence),

  • Biohazard threats (such as anthrax), and

  • Severe Weather (such as tornados, hurricanes, thunderstorms, floods, snow and ice).

  1. Exit Routes: There need to be two routes of exit from every area of the plant or office. This is required both by OSHA regulations and local fire codes. The routes should not involve travel near high-hazard areas, such as going by fuel tanks or storage areas for flammable materials. For other details about the routes, see our previous column on this issue.

  2. A specific staging area for persons from each part of the plant: For a small operation this may just be the building parking lot. But if this is a multi-story building, a more specific location is needed, such as a particular corner or in front of a specific store, etc. (Of course, in case of a potential disaster like a threatened building collapse or explosion, as in the World Trade Center situation, the local fire or police officers may order immediate evacuation of all nearby areas.) The important thing is that there be some way of accounting for all persons in a plant or other building so that rescue personnel don’t end up going needlessly into a burning building or one threatening to collapse.

  3. An immediately locatable list of:

  • Person or persons authorized to take action for the type of emergency encountered.

  • Persons or groups to be notified, such as plant fire team and/or the fire department.

  • Resources appropriate to respond to the threat, such as evacuation check lists, building chain of command for this threat, appropriate emergency telephone numbers, etc.

  • A TO-DO List for the first person responding to the emergency, which might be the office or plant secretary or someone in the shop or office.

  • All of the above elements of this list should be written down on a single page, or at most on two pages. If a bomb threat gets called, the person responding can’t rummage through a notebook. All the key information should be at his/her fingertips, and this list must be widely available in the plant.

  1. Establish a plant-wide or building-wide safety committee: This group needs to coordinate building response to disasters of various types. It may have to cross company boundaries, depending on the building you work in. This committee and the union or union-management health and safety committee should review the emergency plan annually. Things change, and the emergency plan, if it is to be effective when emergencies strike, must regularly be brought up to date.


Copies of the plan need to be placed in many known, accessible locations throughout the plant. For example, at least one full copy should be located in every department or division of the plant or office, and all employees should know where their nearest copy is located. In time of emergency, you can’t depend on the shop steward or supervisor to tell you where it is. They may be off duty that day, at another site, or busy doing something else at the moment in response to the emergency.

In addition, the copy must be organized so that the vital emergency response information within it can be found almost instantaneously. A 200-page loose-leaf folder, with a table of contents and a couple of general tabs for the chapters, won’t cut it in time of crisis. Many organizations print up the vital list information (as in Item 4 above) on a version of a flip chart, with large printed tabs telling what type of emergency the page refers to – for example Fire, Accident, Ice storm, HazMat incident on-site, HazMat incident off-site, etc. This might be in addition to the full printed plan, if the plan is a long one. Also the list should contain the names and phone numbers of staff who are trained in First Aid/CPR.

Some further issues for the emergency response committee to think about:

  • Your regular communications system may not be in operation during an emergency. What are the backup plans?

  • The key administrator may be out of the office or plant when an emergency occurs. Who takes over? Who is his or her backup? Who is the backup’s backup?

  • What about temp employees in the plant during an emergency, say a temporary secretary? Is a buddy system in place for them?

  • Do the plans include provisions for disabled persons in the building? For example, persons in wheelchairs, or persons whose hearing or vision is impaired?

page top

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article

Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions • Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE
UE News • Political Action • Info for Workers • Resources • Education • Health & Safety • International • Links