Why should you have an evacuation plan

by OH&S – Leo van der Walt

An evacuation plan for any organisation – whether large or small and wherever its operations are situated – forms part of the overall emergency planning that responsible management should have in place. Such plans ensure that every employee will know what to do in emergencies, and also that they will know how to assist others who need help.
Many aspects of emergency plans and evacuation procedures are regulated in terms of the requirements set by the Occupational Health and Safety Act No 85 of 1993 (OHASA) as well as bylaws and industry regulations. However, in addition to the legal responsibility, it makes sense to ensure that you plan for the worst – even while managing your business in such a way that the likelihood of emergencies is limited. Natural disasters can strike anywhere. Major events like accidents or dangerous substances escaping or being spilled through no fault of your own, can happen. They could occur purely due to your geographical situation or an unusual disaster. Although these are fortunately rare events, it still remains important to be prepared to keep people safe at all times.
Not all emergencies will require evacuation procedures, but when such action is indicated and an alarm is sounded, evacuations are vital to ensure that the potential risk to life and health of all concerned (employees as well as visitors, clients, suppliers, service providers etc.) is limited. Even though a ‘safety drill’ or ‘evacuation plan drill’ may be time-consuming and irritating to some, especially when you are busy with urgent business, it is important to remember that emergencies do not wait for convenient times to occur – they come at any time of the day or night. Emergencies are, by definition, unexpected and unforeseen.

The difference between emergency plans and evacuation plans is mainly the following:

  • Emergency plans are broader and include not only immediate physical threats, but wider issues relating to the organisation’s operations and the ways that the business will deal with those major threats.
  • An emergency plan covers the overall policy and procedures in the event of any number of emergencies such as a fire, structural damage, threats (including bomb threats or other threats), or natural disasters.
  • An evacuation plan is the specific plan or set of instructions on how to evacuate a building and/or an area.
Effective evacuation procedures are planned to ensure smooth and safe action and are intended to ensure that normal operations can continue as quickly as possible after ensuring the safety of people, buildings and equipment. One of the main aims of an effective plan is that it helps to avoid panic, while protecting people and property.

The ‘unforeseen’ part of emergencies can be mitigated by having evacuation plans that have the following characteristics:

  • They are well planned by an interdisciplinary team that can give inputs about a range of potential dangers, as well as about possible solutions to specific problems.
  • They enjoy the full support of owners and top management.
  • Accountability and responsibilities for action during an evacuation is clear, and it is also made clear that their instructions have to be followed.  The person directing or leading people out of a building is possibly – and even likely – not to be the top manager.
  • They address all relevant legal requirements and regulations.
  • They are regularly tested via drills – and all employees (from the most senior to the most junior) and other people present at the time of the drill(s) are required to participate. 
  • They are detailed enough to cover all possible events.
  • They include all relevant important details:  evacuation floor plans, clear and simple evacuation procedures and clear indications and clothing or other indications to mark responsible personnel.
  • They also take care of the ‘small’ things. Plans account for anything that ‘could’ happen and ways to ensure that, for instance, evacuation routes are kept clear of furniture and other obstacles that could impede progress.  They ensure that plans will work in the dark.  They also ensure that, among others, people with physical disabilities or the elderly or small children can be helped. They also include consideration to actions such as specific machinery and vehicles to be switched off, or emergency alternatives for key operations requiring human interaction, etc. The latter could, for instance become very important in farming operations.
  • The location of relevant siren switches, as well as keys and safety equipment is widely known, not only to a few individuals.  It cannot always be accurately predicted who will be present at the time of an emergency. Therefore 24-hour awareness and alert individuals and deputies can make the difference between chaos and ordered procedures being followed.
  • They are regularly updated to account for any changes in working procedures, renovations/changes to buildings etc.
  • Relevant materials (including sirens or other sounding equipment), implements and exit doors are regularly tested and these tests are formally noted and signed off as part of specific individuals’ accountabilities. Employees are informed in advance about relevant tests (e.g. testing sirens) to avoid panic.
  • The importance of evacuation plans is made clear to new employees. They are alerted about relevant procedures as part of their introduction to their new workplace.
  • They are supported with relevant signage that takes into consideration e.g. evacuation at night or alternative routes, should ‘normal’ evacuation routes be blocked.  Text should be clear, short and easy to read.
  • They are clearly communicated to all staff as well as service providers such as security organisations, building contractors and others.
  • Implementation of evacuation plans are included in health and safety plans.  Equipment such as firefighting equipment and first-aid kits should be situated in areas where it makes sense in the case of evacuations.
  • All responsible staff are appropriately trained.
  • Any changes in the procedures are clearly communicated to the entire workforce and regular service providers.  Reminders about safety and evacuation in case of emergencies appear from time to time in relevant communication (using among other e-mails, newsletters, meeting agendas).
  • Responsibility for the implementation of an evacuation plan is transferred during holiday periods, weekends or other absence(s) of those primarily responsible for leadership during evacuations. The names of deputised staff is communicated to all staff – especially receptionists, safety, security and maintenance staff.
  • Drills take place regularly – ideally at least twice a year. Designated routes for evacuation should be permanently and clearly marked.
Very often the individuals responsible for occupational health and safety will also be tasked with responsibility for evacuation procedures. Where relevant, it may be useful to ask professional occupational health and safety advisors to assist by reviewing the process of creating evacuation plans. They could also advise you on the inclusion of relevant actions, implements, materials and signage. For instance, simply by providing input in terms of the visibility of signage or the contents of first-aid kits, expert advisors could ensure that your evacuation plans are as good as they can get for your specific buildings and other structures as well as the people you employ. An organisation such as Beehive OH&S could also advise you on the best way to include evacuation procedures in your overall health and safety planning.

Contact Leo van der Walt of Beehive OH&S and his staff to discuss your specific requirements at 072 594 5989, info@beehiveohs.co.za  or www.beehiveohs.co.za.



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