EMWS and the Role of Safety Laiasons

by Craig Collins, Environmental Health & Safety Coordinator, Department of Emergency Management and Workplace Safety

September was National Preparedness month and October hosts the Great Shakeout Event. What do these have to do with Henrico County Employees? Enter the Department of Emergency Management and Workplace Safety (EMWS) and their mission to make sure employees are prepared and informed of what to do in the case of a workplace emergency.

Workplace emergencies can be due to human error, natural, or a combination of both. Earthquakes and severe weather events can damage structures and cause injuries or death. Natural events, like lightning strikes, can spark fires or directly strike individuals. Structure fires may be confined to a specific area or affect an entire building. Within the Department of Emergency Management and Workplace Safety (EMWS), there are several hazards with significant overlap in preparedness procedures like emergency evacuation and sheltering. Overall, planning and practicing these techniques aims to have informed employees who know what to do if and when the real thing happens.

We all remember our school days when fire drills were formulaic, straightforward events. Straight lines and silence were the most important factors. The occasional hotel or dorm room false alarm may have been the last practice some of us remember. Depending on the size and complexity of the workplace, an evacuation may be as simple as leaving the office and turning left or right. Or, it may be a complex series of following signs, avoiding elevators and struggling to get to an assembly area.

For those who grew up on the east coast, sheltering may be a relatively new concept. Tornadoes were fairly infrequent, and most of us had never experienced an earthquake until 2013. Also, workplace violence has unfortunately become something we must think about and prepare for. Although finding a safe location in a basement, on a lower floor, and away from windows and doors is a simple concept, it’s not necessarily so in a shared work area.

 As employees, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA or “VOSH” in Virginia) entitles us to a workplace free from recognized hazards. Traditionally, there are guards on power tools, and any required PPE is provided at no charge. Additionally, where severe weather or man-made emergencies could threaten the workplace, VOSH requires an Emergency Action Plan or an “EAP” (not to be confused with an Employee Assistance Program). EAPs dictate that employees are informed of evacuation routes, assembly areas, and sheltering locations. Additionally, employers are required to identify any employees who have emergency-related duties. In most places, this is someone who can account for all employees once at the assembly area. In other work areas, this may be the person designated to cut off the natural gas supply to prevent larger-scale damage to a facility before evacuation.

This seemingly simple task is quite complicated for an employer with almost 5000 employees at multiple work locations (some with no fixed location at all). For example, how do we make sure that employees who evacuate the Admin Building don’t all end up in the same parking area without enough room for everyone? How do we ensure an evacuation assembly area isn’t in the exact location that emergency services will need to stage equipment and responders? Also, shelter locations are usually limited in the number of employees that can shelter there – and let’s not even add in COVID protocols and social distancing! The answer to all these situations involves EMWS staff in both the Emergency Management and Workplace Safety sides. EMWS coordinates the Safety Liaison program, which brings together employees from different work areas at all levels of responsibility. Safety Liaisons help communicate these requirements to their work areas, including directly to co-workers and sometimes to managers or agency heads. Safety Liaisons and EMWS staff meet quarterly to discuss various emergency preparedness topics and help prepare for drills and exercises.

On 10/21/2021 at 10:21, approximately 2400 Henrico County employees participated in an earthquake drill called the Great ShakeOut. Safety Liaisons helped work areas prepare for an exercise that simulated an earthquake, including demonstrating proper sheltering techniques. Participant surveys and after-action discussions collected both the positive outcomes as well as some suggestions for improvement. The next county-wide event will be the 2022 ShakeOut on 10/20/2022 at 10:20. The statewide Virginia Severe Weather Awareness and Tornado Drill is scheduled for 03/08/2023, and a county-wide fire drill is planned for later in 2023. Look for information in your work area for these upcoming events.  

If you have questions about emergency preparedness, evacuations, sheltering, or other similar issues, please check EMWS on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram or contact us at [email protected].