A workplace emergency is a situation that threatens workers, customers, or the public; disrupts or shuts down operations; or causes physical or environmental damage. Emergencies may be natural or man-made, and may include hurricanes, floods, wildfires, winter weather, chemical spills, explosions, and many other hazards. Many types of emergencies can be anticipated in the planning process, which can help employers and workers plan for other unpredictable situations.
June is National Safety Month, and week one focuses on Emergency Preparedness. In the workplace, a variety of hazards can occur as a result of natural disasters and emergencies. For those working in the impacted area, it is vital to be prepared for an emergency by ensuring that employers and workers have the necessary supplies, know where to go, and know how to keep themselves safe when an emergency occurs. A solid emergency preparedness plan allows for more seamless communication and execution which can reduce serious injuries and fatalities.
Certain psychological factors and associated behaviors can increase the effectiveness of your emergency preparedness plan. Consider the 4 Factor Model of SafetyDNA®, made up of four psychological factors related to safe behavior and workplace injuries which can act as a guide for understanding individuals' behavioral strengths and “blind spots” when it comes to being prepared for an emergency. If we look at the tendencies from each of the four factors of safety, we can gain tips from those who naturally possess higher levels of these traits:
The Control factor consists of two main components. The first is perceptions of internal versus external control of one’s personal safety, and the second is controlling one’s emotions in the workplace. Research in the safety and psychology fields has consistently found that employees who take ownership over their personal safety are significantly less likely to be injured at work than those who do not.
Tip 1: Prepare in advance, don't leave things to chance
Individuals who internalize their safety control more effectively plan ahead for potential risks or hazards and respond better to an emergency because they believe that each preventative action they take can reduce their risk. In other words, they prefer to be more proactive and like being “prepared for the worst case scenario.” Conversely, those who externalize control tend to do less planning in general because they don’t believe that their actions have much of an impact on future outcomes. This usually transfers over to planning for emergencies and other negative potential events.
Tip 2: Stay calm in the moment and think clearly
Effectively managing emotions can result in the ability to stay calm in the moment. This is important, as it allows for clearer thinking during an emergency. Stress levels rise dramatically during emergencies, and it really brings out our true levels of emotional control. Many emergency situations are made worse every year simply because some individuals lose their cool and exercise very poor judgment under pressure. Yet it seems every year we read about amazing stories of coolness under pressure, such as the story of Sully Sullenberger landing a plane on the Hudson River in 2009, under the worse possible circumstances.
The Awareness factor includes components such as attention to detail, alertness over time, multi-tasking ability, and working (or short-term) memory. An individual’s overall level of awareness is a combination of these pieces and how they interact can lead to different abilities and behaviors. These behaviors can be the difference between life or death in an emergency situation where there is often minimal time to think or react. But what we often don’t realize is that this trait can have a major impact on how we plan and prepare for an emergency.
Tip 1: Pay attention to the small details in your plan
Including small details in your plan will cut down on the time needed to make decisions or recall things like the location of your emergency kit or equipment.
Tip 2: Make lists so you don't rely on memory in the middle of emergency
It’s helpful to make lists that can be easily recalled or referred to when an emergency strikes. While those high in awareness can more effectively multitask, recalling emergency preparedness lists will help people to stay focused and alert during an emergency as well as remember the small details of emergency plans. This is especially helpful for those lower on Awareness and innate memory levels.
The Follows Rules factor consists of a few different components: one’s attitude towards the rules; how often (and in what way) they bend and/or break the rules; and their need for the structure that rules provide.
Tip 1: Ensure your plan is in compliance with any state or federal regulations
In many cases, your organization’s emergency plan must comply with strict state and/or federal regulations. Some of these will likely add more work, time, or cost, which will make it tempting for some decision-makers to bypass or ignore some of these emergency plan policies. Understanding this psychological factor and how it shapes everyone’s views about rules uniquely can help employees understand and appreciate the importance of the rule. For more information about specific policies when it comes to emergency preparedness, visit OSHA's Law and Regulations page.
Tip 2: Communicate the WHY
Make sure you communicate why each part of the policy is in your emergency preparedness plan. Simply telling a rule to an employee is only half the battle. Explaining it to them, including the reasons for it and potential consequences, gives them real examples to tie the rule to, and good reason to follow it. People are more likely to follow rules – both in the planning phase and during an emergency – if they understand the real reason behind the rule. Read more about the power of "WHY" when communicating about employee safety.
The Exhibits Caution factor is made up of one’s overall comfort level with risk and one’s level of impulsivity. This is paramount during emergency planning because individuals who have lower levels of Caution are naturally more comfortable with risks and will thus be comfortable with emergency plans that lack detail or assume “the best possible scenario.” Many emergency plans fall short for this very reason – the planner failed to account for worst case scenarios or was comfortable leaving out some key details from the plan. Caution is obviously critical during an emergency as well – individuals with lower levels of Caution will be comfortable taking more risks or making impulsive decisions under these precarious conditions, and this could have disastrous consequences.
Tip 1: Assume the worst
When creating your emergency preparedness plan, think of everything that could go wrong. Don't be overconfident or complacent. Consider all potential consequences. Planning ahead reduces the chance of making impulsive decisions in the moment.
Tip 2: Think before acting
This is a fine line. In an emergency there is obviously a need to act quickly. But ensuring that you recall and then carry out the emergency preparedness plan can ensure a more calculated, smooth execution of the plan and prevent further incidents once an emergency has occurred.
By considering yours and your employees' personal safety profiles, you can not only minimize the risk of certain emergencies, but you can enhance the effectiveness of the emergency preparedness plan you have in place. Communication, along with the four core factors: Control, Awareness, Rules, Caution, are critical to making sure that employees reduce their own risk, as well as their coworkers' and customers', in an emergency.