Pop quiz: If you were stranded at work for the next 48 hours, how would you manage? Could you eat? Get your daily medications? Sleep?
What would you do if there were a hurricane? A flood? An active shooter in the building?
No one wants to experience a workplace emergency – whether it’s a fire, tornado or act of violence – but that doesn’t mean you should blissfully coast along, hoping the worst never happens. It’s vital to have a game plan, experts say.
“Anything can happen to anybody at any time,” says Jim Judge, emergency management director for Volusia County in Florida and member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. “It gives you peace of mind knowing you can be self-sufficient.”
React appropriately. Escaping a fire is very different than reacting to a winter storm or violent intruder. So, it’s important to know how to prepare for and safely endure a range of at-work emergencies.
Learning escape routes is critical if, for example, there’s an out-of-control fire in your office building. “When there’s smoke, if you don’t know how to get out of your building, you’re blind,” says Christine B. Petitti, safety and occupational health specialist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Your boss is typically required by law to maintain a certain number of unobstructed exits and an evacuation plan. Workers in high-rises should know which staircases to use during a fire, since designated negative-pressure stairwells won’t fill up with smoke, Petitti says.
When it comes to a tornado or hurricane, however, fleeing your office is the wrong move. Instead workers should take shelter away from windows and against inside walls. “In a tornado or hurricane, you don’t want to evacuate,” says Christine V. Walters, a Maryland-based independent human resources and employment law consultant. “You don’t want to get blown away or swept up or have debris hit you.”
Workplace violence is another risk. Of the 160 active shooter incidents in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, nearly half took place at businesses, according to a study by the FBI.
Workers dodging an active shooter at the office – or in the surrounding area – may need to evacuate. But depending on the layout of the building and the position of the shooter, taking cover in a conference room or locked office may be safer, according to the Department of Homeland Security. As a last resort, employees may have to fight back against a shooter.
Keep in mind, too, that some emergency plans vary based on location. Workers in Dallas, for example, probably needn’t plan for a snow day, Petitti says. Other emergencies can crop up based on the type of work performed on-site. “Employees should ask questions that are specific to their industry,” says Marina London, a certified employee assistance professional and Web editor at the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. “If you work in a bank, ask, ‘What’s the protocol in the event of a robbery?'”
Stock a few necessities. If a flood, snowstorm or nearby chemical leak force you to shelter in place, aim to camp out in – relative – comfort. Judge, from the Red Cross, recommends stashing “an extra change of clothes, toiletries, extra water, some munchies as well, so you can take care of yourself for a short period of time.”
If there isn’t space in your office desk or locker to keep these necessities, stash a to-go kit in your car, Petitti says. If bad weather snarls traffic, for example, your car kit could come in handy as you wait it out at the office or get stuck on the commute home.
Your office may have a stockpile of emergency supplies, but having your own may give you peace of mind and allows you to include personal necessities, such as daily medications, hygiene products and contact lens solution.
One warning: “If you’re the person who brings all those things, you’d better bring extra,” Judge says. Chances are your less-prepared co-workers will be asking to dip into your stash.
Ask, ask, ask. If you’re concerned that you haven’t learned certain safety protocols, just ask. The human resources department should either be able to share emergency plans or consider forming a team to make them. Some may bring in local fire departments, law enforcement or other experts to coach staff on procedures. And you may have a chance to volunteer to be trained in first aid or CPR to help in an emergency.
Either way, an employer’s emergency action and emergency response plans can’t help you if you don’t know them. Says OSHA’s Petitti: “If a worker doesn’t know anything about what’s going on, they need to start asking questions.