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How to respond to 9 uncommon workplace emergencies

[fa icon="calendar"] 1/18/17 1:00 PM / by SAMTRAC



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By its very nature, no one can predict an emergency. But you can prepare for one. Employers need to take the time ensure they have the training and planning in place to effectively respond to an emergency. An emergency is defined as any unforeseen crisis that demands an immediate response.

Emergencies in the workplace can include:

  • a disruption of work
  • harm to employees or customers
  • damage to materials, equipment, or facilities.


During an earthquake, at work people will be at the greatest risk from collapsing ceilings, windows, light fixtures, and other falling objects.

Here’s what to do:

  • If you are indoors, stay there.
  • Take cover under sturdy furniture, or brace yourself against an inside wall.
  • Do not use elevators. If you have to evacuate the building, use stairways to leave the workplace.
  • Stay away from objects that could fall.
  • Protect your head and neck.
  • Be ready to rescue people who may fall victim to the earthquake – professional responders may not be able to respond. Remove victims to a triage area if possible.



If your workplace handles, stores, or processes flammable gases, liquids, and solids it is vulnerable to explosions. These will occur with no warning, and often cause disorganisation and panic.

Here’s what to do:

  • Try to communicate with emergency-scene coordinators.
  • Administer first aid if you have assessed that it is safe to do so.
  • Estimate human injuries and casualties.
  • Assess damage to the workplace.
  • Do not use elevators.
  • Evacuate the workplace, following your company’s established procedures.



If you need to, invite a local fire department representative to the workplace to help identify fire hazards and to discuss how you and your colleagues should respond to a fire in the workplace. It is the by-products of fire – smoke and fire gases – that kill. Quickly evacuating in an orderly manner is the most effective response to an out-of-control fire.

Here’s what to do:

  • Pull the fire alarm (or set off the predetermined signal).
  • Call the emergency responders. Tell the dispatcher/operator your location and the nature of the emergency.
  • Inform an emergency-scene coordinator.
  • Do not use elevators.
  • Only allow trained responders to use fire extinguishers.


If emergency scene coordinators or other employees are permitted to use fire extinguishers, they will be properly trained in their use.


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Release of hazardous substances

Hazardous substances are any substances dangerous to your health:

  • Solvents
  • Pesticides
  • Paints
  • Petroleum products
  • Heavy metals


Even if your workplace does not use hazardous substances, it is possible for it to be affected by a nearby release or an accident on a local freeway. If this is a possibility, your emergency action plan must describe how the scene commander and coordinators will respond, and notify the fire and police departments.


Here’s what to do:

  • Inform the emergency-scene commander.
  • Evacuate the area surrounding the release.
  • Call the emergency responders. Tell the dispatcher/operator your location and the nature of the emergency.


If your workplace uses hazardous chemicals, you are required to:

  • inventory the chemicals
  • keep the manufacturer-supplied material safety data sheets (MSDS)
  • label the chemical containers
  • train your employees to protect themselves from the hazards of the chemicals.


If your employees must wear personal protective equipment during an emergency (chemical suits, gloves, hoods, boots, or respirators), make sure the equipment is available when they need it, that it fits them, and that they know how to use it.



The most likely workplace emergency is a medical emergency. A serious medical emergency, such as cardiac arrest, will require immediate attention, and your response time is critical. It’s essential that the medical first responders know how to perform first aid/CPR.


Here’s what to do:

  • Call emergency responders. Tell the dispatcher/operator the location and the nature of the emergency.
  • Do not move the victim unless it is necessary to save their life.
  • Notify an emergency-scene coordinator for CPR or other first-aid tasks.
  • Inform the emergency scene-commander.
  • Assist professional medical responders when they arrive.
  • Inform the victim’s supervisor, who will notify their next of kin.


A weather-related event

Hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and floods can all cause workplace emergencies. Many communities experience floods following spring rain. Winter storms often bring strong winds, freezing rain, and snow that can cause structural damage and power outages.

Here’s what to do:

  • Wait for instructions from the emergency-scene commander. Remember that a power failure could slow communication.
  • Tune a battery-powered radio to a station that broadcasts local news.
  • Do not evacuate the workplace unless you have been ordered to do so.


Threats of violence

In the US, nearly 20% of all violent crime happens in the workplace.

A threat of violence may come in many forms:

  • Face-to-face
  • By fax
  • E-mail
  • Phone
  • In writing

A threat can be directed toward the workplace or toward a specific person. Police departments, mental health professionals, and employee-assistance programme counsellors offer prevention information, security inspections, and employee training that will help reduce the risk of workplace violence.

Here’s what to do:

  • Inform an emergency-scene coordinator.
  • Activate a silent alarm, if appropriate, and if your workplace has one.
  • Isolate the threatening person if it’s possible to do so safely.
  • Inform the emergency-scene commander.


Bomb threats

Take all bomb threats seriously. Although these threats are rare, they deserve your complete attention if you receive them.

Here’s what to do:

  • Do not use fire alarms or phones in the building – they generate radio waves that could trigger a bomb.
  • If someone finds a package that may contain/be a bomb, the person should note its size, shape, and whether it emits a sound, and then notify the emergency-scene commander.
  • Call emergency responders from outside the building to report the emergency and determine if an evacuation is necessary.
  • Use a communication method that does not generate radio waves to order the evacuation.
  • Consider offering threat-management training to emergency-scene coordinators, and if appropriate, members of quick-response teams.



Although terrorist acts pose minimal risks to most workplaces, the devastating effects of recent acts have changed the perception of a ‘secure workplace’. Terrorism has also added a new dimension to emergency planning. What distinguishes terrorist acts is the use of threats and violence to intimidate or coerce.


Factors to keep in mind

Every company is different. Therefore, each company will assume a different amount of risk when it comes to potential acts of violence or terrorist attacks. Consider various factors to create the most effective emergency action plan possible. Ask yourself these two important questions:

How do others perceive the company’s mission, in terms of:

  • political activities
  • business activities
  • economic activities
  • social responsibilities?


How vulnerable to terrorist attack are the following critical resources:

  • Production machinery and equipment
  • Mail and HVAC systems
  • Electronic communication, power, data, and systems hardware
  • Real estate and other physical property
  • Finance and administrative transactions


Profiling your health and safety risks

As an effective leader or line manager, you need to be able to pre-empt the risks your organisation faces, rank them in order of importance and then take action to control them. For instance, you cannot predict when a hurricane will hit you, but if you are in an area where hurricanes are fairly common, you can take effective measures to protect your company and its employees as much as possible when one does strike. This requires you to profile your organisation’s unique safety risks.


Key action in effective risk profiling

Your range of risks goes beyond health and safety risks to include:

  • quality,
  • environmental,
  • and asset damage.


But issues in one area could impact in another. For example, unsafe forklift truck driving may have a service or quality dimension as a result of damaged goods.


Your risk profile must examine the nature and levels of threats faced by your organisation. It will examine:

  • the likelihood of adverse effects occurring,
  • the level of disruption and costs associated with each type of risk,
  • and the effectiveness of the control measures you’ve put in place.


Assessing your risks

What types of risks do you need to consider?

In some organisations the health and safety risks will be tangible and immediate safety issues, e.g. machine guarding. In other organisations, however, the risks may not be as overt. They could be health-related and it can therefore take a long time before the illness becomes apparent. Degrading plant integrity could also lead to later emerging risks in some businesses. 


Health and safety risks also range from things that happen very infrequently but with catastrophic effects (high-hazard, low-frequency events, such as an oil refinery explosion) to things that happen much more frequently but with lesser consequences (low-hazard, high-frequency events). Clearly, the high-hazard, low-frequency example could destroy the business and would be high-priority in a risk profile. 


Who should do the assessment?

Someone with a knowledge of the activity, process or material that is being assessed is the best person to complete a risk profile. Remember, your employees and, most of all, their safety representatives are a valuable source of information. 


If an adviser or consultant assists with the risk assessment, managers and workers should still be involved.


Who could be affected?

Consider all your activities, taking account of possible harm to:

  • employees
  • contractors
  • members of the public
  • those using products and services
  • anyone else affected by the activity, such as neighbours.


Remember to think of how a risk could affect different groups, such as young or inexperienced workers, pregnant workers, workers with a disability, migrant workers or ageing workers. Also consider your supply chain – if you don’t manage that properly, the actions of others in those networks can impact on your health and safety risks.


Assessing your level of risk

The level of risk arising from the work activity should determine how sophisticated your risk profile needs to be.


For small businesses

With few or simple risks, a suitable and sufficient risk assessment can be a very straightforward process based on informed judgement and using appropriate guidance.


For medium-sized businesses or those with greater risks

In these cases, your risk assessment will need to be more sophisticated. You may need specialist advice for some areas of the assessment, for example:

  • Risks requiring specialist knowledge, e.g. a particularly complex process or technique
  • Risks needing specialist analytical techniques, e.g. being able to measure air quality and to assess its impact


For large and high-hazard sites

These sites will require the most developed and sophisticated risk assessments.

For manufacturing sites using or storing bulk hazardous substances, large-scale mineral extraction or nuclear plant, the risk assessment will be a significant part of the legally required safety case or report, and may incorporate such techniques as a quantified risk assessment.


Risk controls

When considering risk controls, discuss the issues with your workers and think about what is already being done, then compare it with the industry standard. For example, this could be industry-specific advice from an employer body, a trade association, a trade union or a safety organisation.

Your risk assessment might have to concentrate more on the broad range of risks that you can fore, such as:

  • where the nature of the work may change fairly frequently or the workplace itself changes and develops (such as a construction site)
  • where workers move from site to site.


Recording your findings

Record your significant findings. These should include a record of the preventive and protective measures in place to control the risks, and what further action, if any, needs to be taken to reduce risk sufficiently, for example health surveillance.



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Topics: Emergencies in the Workplace, 2017



SAMTRAC International is the leading occupational health, safety and environment (HSE) management e-learning training course that provides students with the foundational and fundamental knowledge critical to occupational HSE management.

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