Most industrial facilities are prepared for emergencies that originate inside -- accidents, fires, electrical incidents, hazardous-materials releases. Fewer are prepared for extreme weather and natural-disaster emergencies that threaten the entire facility. While it’s impossible to prevent these incidents, preparation can mean the difference between temporary disruption and sustained disaster for your people and your operations.

Don’t Put Off Planning for a Rainy Day

It’s human nature to let emergency planning get pre-empted by other priorities. But when a natural disaster is imminent, it’s too late to plan.

Are you confident in your ability to quickly secure your people and facilities if disaster strikes? If not, walking through risk scenarios with key people on your team will help determine your readiness. Stakeholders may include EH&S personnel, plant security, facilities management, and team leaders/supervisors, among others. Here are five key steps to help you work through potential threats and plans.

1. Assess specific risks.

Start by assessing your facility’s risk for various natural-disaster scenarios. The West Coast may mean earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides; the Midwest is at high risk for tornados; while the Eastern U.S. gets its share of hurricanes and severe winter storms.

Different threats require different responses. Once you’ve identified potential threats to your facility, walk through separate scenarios and plans for each. It’s not enough to plan for generalized severe weather or other natural disasters. For example, a hurricane threat may require you to evacuate while a tornado threat may require you to instruct your people to shelter in place.

2. Assign monitoring, alerting, and emergency response roles.

Once you have determined the threats you are most likely to face, consider early-detection mechanisms.

There are many ways to give your people as much time as possible to respond in an emergency. You may assign someone to monitor the National Weather Service online or be trained as a weather spotter to make sure you know when that storm watch becomes a storm warning. Other options include continuous threat-monitoring tools such as weather radios or weather alert smartphone apps.

However you monitor threats to the facility, it’s important that someone in your organization is responsible for knowing immediately when a potential threat becomes a real threat. Initial threat detection should be tied into the plant’s overall emergency plan. You’ll also need to establish who is responsible for decision-making in a severe weather or natural disaster emergency -- including overall decision-making and on-site back-up.

3. Work out the logistics.

An emergency in an industrial setting is the catalyst for a lot of things that need to happen very quickly -- equipment needs to be powered down safely, hazardous materials need to be secured, and gas, water, and power may need to be shut off. Existing inventory, vital records and other items of value need to be protected. Most important, people need to move to safety.

Can you do this within 13 minutes, the average lead-time you get in a tornado warning? Even with more slowly developing threats such as hurricanes, threats such as flash flooding can happen suddenly. If you have current evacuation plans, you may be able to adapt them for extreme weather and natural disaster emergencies. However, depending on what threats your site faces, you may also need to develop a shelter-in-place plan that includes designated safe areas. You may also need to set up an Area of Refuge -- a safe place where people with disabilities can shelter until first responders can help them. Make sure your plans accommodate visitors and temporary workers, too.

Your logistics discussions should include how you will document, update, practice and evaluate your emergency plans, and revise them as necessary. Depending on your current emergency practice schedule, it may make sense to incorporate severe weather or natural-disaster scenarios into existing drills. You may even want to coordinate with your jurisdiction’s emergency preparedness and response team.

4. Establish an emergency communications plan.

Having established what people should do in an emergency, you need a way to rapidly alert and instruct them. In a small facility, this may be as simple as a walking sweep of the plant floor. Larger, spread-out facilities need a more systematic approach. In some cases, this may mean training people to respond to varying tones and/or strobe light emergency “codes.” The effectiveness of these systems relies heavily on continuous training along with regular maintenance of the lights and sirens. Alternatively, public address systems provide a way for facility or emergency managers to provide specific voice instructions. In these cases, it’s important to ensure that someone is available to provide voice instructions in various languages spoken by facility personnel.

Internet protocol (IP) emergency communication systems takes this a step further, allowing simultaneous broadcast of different pre-programmed emergency alerts to different parts of the facility. For example, one alert may tell workers at the loading dock to immediately turn off equipment and move to their shelter-in-place locations, while another tells people working with hazardous materials to secure them first, and then seek shelter. These systems can be linked to monitoring systems and set up to trigger on-site alerts and instructions automatically.