In the final seconds of the championship game, the quarterback hands off the football to his star running back. The running back skillfully weaves, dodges and avoids tackles. The home crowd cheers as he crosses the goal line, securing victory.

The play succeeded because all the players on offense knew their role. They had practiced it many times.

Now imagine the same scenario, but instead of a star running back, the quarterback hands the ball to a teenager randomly selected from a local middle school who has never played a game of football; never practiced with the team; doesn’t know the plays; and is not wearing any protective gear. His chances of success and his level of personal safety are both obviously close to zero. When he sees a linebacker barreling at him, what’s he going to do? No one on the team, on the sideline or in the stands knows if he’ll run the wrong direction, freeze, or by pure chance move toward the goal. 

Disaster at the door

In a workplace, the stakes are different. Employees, like professional athletes, know their job duties, perform them daily and are, hopefully, have a better conversion and win rating than their favorite sports teams. But when an alarm goes off, red lights begin to flash or disaster is at the door, is every employee a star player who knows how to run special plays instinctively; or are they the terrified teenager who has never seen the playbook?

Information & risk identification

Emergencies are not the time for someone to start shouting instructions, hoping that they will be heard, understood and followed. Employees need to know specifically what can happen and how to react before there is an emergency.

This begins by communicating the types of risks and emergencies that could happen at the facility. Natural disasters, chemical spills, fires, medical emergencies, acts of violence and terrorism are common examples of unplanned situations that disrupt normal operations and must be part of the facility’s emergency preparedness and response plans.

Employees who are not taught about workplace emergencies and who don’t have the information and training to react in a logical, pre-determined manner are more likely to panic and make less favorable decisions.

Keep it simple

Employees generally don’t need to know every detail of the facility’s emergency and preparedness plans. Instead, they need to know specifically what they need to do when something unexpected happens. For some employees, that may mean recognizing an alarm and immediately evacuating. For others, it may mean shutting down a process or operation before evacuating or taking more advanced response actions.

Providing clear, concise, specific directions reduces the chance of error. In addition to training; mark exit routes, alarms and other warnings clearly enough to be understood by anyone who may happen to be in the facility, including visitors and vendors. Ensure that good signage and lighting are used in exit routes as well as areas where emergency response equipment is stored to reinforce what has been taught in trainings.

In an emergency, people rely on the knowledge that they already have to make their response decisions. (You play like you practice.) Training, drills and clear instructions build self-confidence and broaden individual knowledge so that when the time comes, employees don’t have to stop and consider a broad number of possible options: a clear choice is already available and immediate action can be taken.

Breaking natural instincts

If people don’t have enough information to process the threat they are facing; they will typically instinctively respond to acute stress by fighting it or running from it. Training helps to break or at least condition this instinct by introducing a moment of recognition. Training and experience are what tells a person to get out of the building when the fire alarm sounds, but to take shelter when the tornado alert sounds.  

Preparing for workplace emergencies requires preparation and setting clear, specific goals that help every person to have the confidence to make good, safe decisions and avoid panic when there is an emergency.