Emergency evacuations are more common than many people realize, including evacuations in the workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the most frequent causes of evacuations in the U.S. each year are fires and floods. In addition, a wide variety of emergencies, both man-made and natural, may require a workplace to be evacuated. These emergencies may include explosions, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous/toxic material releases, radiological and biological accidents, civil disturbances and workplace violence.
Deciding whether to shelter-in-place or evacuate to safety (i.e., get away from a threat or hazard) is among the most important decisions that must be made during an emergency. Employers should understand and plan for both scenarios. In any emergency, the local authorities may or may not be able to provide information immediately to assess the situation. Employers should consider how the situation might impact workers sheltering-in-place at a job site versus workers attempting to evacuate to safety.
If local authorities or the on-scene coordinator (e.g., incident commander or other official in charge) specifically give instructions to evacuate or seek medical treatment, do so immediately. In very hazardous situations, local officials may require mandatory evacuations. During other times, local officials may advise, or workers and employers may decide, to evacuate to avoid situations they believe are potentially dangerous.
Watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet often for information or official instructions as it becomes available. Additionally, specific instructions and guidance from local officials may also be provided through mass media, sirens or other public address/alert systems, text alerts, emails, or telephone calls.
Develop a Plan Ahead of Time
Many disasters are no-notice events, meaning that there is no warning before they occur. These types of events do not allow time for people to gather even the most basic necessities. Therefore, pre-planning is critical.
Emergency evacuation plans are developed to ensure the safest and most efficient evacuation. The evacuation plan must identify when and how workers are to respond to different types of emergencies. When developing the plan, it is important to ask questions and plan for worst-case scenarios. What would happen if the worksite caught fire, the nearby river flooded, or a chemical release occurred in the facility?
When developing an emergency action plan, it is important to determine:
- Conditions under which an evacuation would be necessary
- Conditions under which it may be better to shelter-in-place
- A clear chain of command and designation of the person in the workplace authorized to order an evacuation or shutdown
- Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits
- Specific evacuation procedures for workers in buildings (including high-rise buildings)
- Specific evacuation procedures and responsibilities for employers in buildings (including high-rise buildings)
- Specific evacuation procedures on construction sites or non-fixed facilities
- Procedures for assisting visitors and workers to evacuate
- Designation of which, if any, workers will remain after the evacuation alarm to shut down critical operations or perform other duties before evacuating
- A means of accounting for workers after an evacuation
- Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Procedures that address special needs workers, such as those that may have physical limitations
- Any special actions for evacuation during an active shooter or other dangerous intruder situation
When to Evacuate
The emergency evacuation plan should identify the different types of situations that will require an evacuation of the workplace. As mentioned before, these may include explosions; earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters; releases of chemical, radioactive, or biological agents; and civil disturbances and workplace violence. The extent of evacuation may be different for different types of hazards.
The type of building employees work in may be a factor in the decision to evacuate during an emergency. Most buildings are vulnerable to the effects of disasters, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, or explosions. The extent of the damage depends on the type of emergency and the building’s construction. Modern factories and office buildings, for example, are framed in steel and may be more structurally sound than older structures. In a major disaster, however, nearly every type of structure will be affected. Some buildings will collapse and others will be left with weakened floors, walls, and roofs.
Evacuations during an Active Shooter or other Dangerous Intruder Situation
Active shooter and other dangerous intruder situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Typically, the immediate deployment of law enforcement is required to stop the shooting and mitigate harm to victims. Because active shooter situations are often over within 10 to 15 minutes, before law enforcement arrives on the scene, individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to deal with an active shooter situation. Evacuation may be one option during an active shooter situation. This web page also describes sheltering in place during an active shooter situation in the “Shelter-in-Place” section below.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides the following guidance for evacuation during an active shooter situation:
If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to evacuate the premises. Be sure to:
- Have an escape route and plan in mind
- Evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow
- Leave your belongings behind
- Help others escape, if possible
- Prevent individuals from entering an area where the active shooter may be
- Keep your hands visible
- Follow the instructions of any police officers
- Do not attempt to move wounded people
- Call 911 when you are safe
For more information, visit DHS’s website for Active Shooter Preparedness.
Clear Chain of Command
It is common practice to select a responsible individual, with appropriate training or certifications, to lead and coordinate the workplace emergency plan and evacuation. It is critical that the employer ensures that the workers know the identity of the coordinator, as well as understand that the coordinator has the responsibility for making life saving decisions during an emergency. The coordinator should be responsible for assessing the situation to determine whether an emergency exists, activating the emergency procedures, overseeing emergency procedures, notifying and coordinating with outside emergency services, and directing the shutdown of utilities or plant operations, if necessary.
Routes and Exits
Most employers create floor diagrams with arrows that designate all exit route(s). These diagrams should include locations of exits, assembly points, and equipment (such as fire extinguishers, first aid kits, automated external defibrillators (AEDs), and spill kits) that may be needed in an emergency.
Exit routes must be:
- Clearly marked and well lit
- Wide enough to accommodate the number of evacuating personnel
- Unobstructed at all times
- Unlikely to expose evacuating personnel to additional hazards
- Designed to avoid potentially hazardous areas or operations