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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Expect the unexpected – 16 tips to strengthen your emergency response plan

While risk assessments are critical to emergency response planning, the risks of some emergencies are not always known to local workplaces, like the recent Ohio train derailment and hazardous chemical release that devastated the environment, people, animals, and businesses. “You have to be ready for anything and everything,” says Dale Wales, Specialized Consultant with WSPS.

Of particular importance when it comes to emergency response is having suitable, carefully selected shelter in place and evacuation plans, as well as effective communication. “These are areas that employers need to get right to avoid complications during emergencies.”

“A poorly prepared evacuation plan could result in a disorganized evacuation or response, which could be catastrophic. And poor communication with employees can lead to worry, frustration and people acting on their own, which could put them in further danger.”

Dale suggests that employers take the time to strengthen these key areas of emergency response planning and provides 16 tips on how to do it.

16 quick tips

With thorough planning and preparation, workplaces can minimize harm to their employees in the event of an outside emergency. “Be sure to involve employees and the joint health and safety committee when developing your emergency response plan and incorporate their ideas,” says Dale.

Use Dale’s 16 tips below to hone these key aspects of your plan:

Shelter in place 

1. “Choose an area that is well-lit, secure, easy for employees to get to, away from windows, has good cell reception, and a landline,” says Dale. There must be ample enough room to accommodate all your employees comfortably.

2. Carry out a head count when all employees have gathered. “It is extremely important to advise employees that you have a system in place to account for the whereabouts of all employees, and visitors. This will help focus responders on locating missing employees and visitors.”

3. Try to keep a supply of fresh bottled water and protein snacks on hand for an emergency. You don’t know how long you may be sheltering in place.

4. Allow people to notify family and friends that they are safe, but ask them not to leave the designated area unless you know exactly where they are and when they are coming back (e.g. bathroom breaks).

5. “Wait for direction from authorities to evacuate, or the “all clear is sounded,” says Dale.


6. Automate the shutdown of equipment so employees don’t have do it manually, which could delay a timely evacuation. Via a PA system, or other “all staff” emergency channels, make sure you advise employees of the imminent shutdown. You may have people operating or working on machinery, working at heights, or conducting other precarious work. You don’t want to cause an accident with a surprise shut down that may inhibit people from getting to safety.

7. “Map out at least two muster points or evacuation routes or exits that are separated to provide an alternate route if the main route or muster point is compromised,” says Dale.

8. Do a head count when all employees have gathered.

9. Assign roles and responsibilities – who’s going to coordinate with outside emergency services? Who’s going to evacuate people? “The more employees you have, the more coordinators you will need to help with the evacuation. Make sure to specify the chain of command so there is no confusion about who is making the decisions.”

10. Provide copies of the plans, with diagrams, to all employees in digital format, and also post them in the workplace.

11. Train employees, supervisors and managers on the plan, and hold practice drills on a regular basis using different scenarios. “You want everyone to know exactly what to do and where to go.”

12. Debrief as soon as possible after each drill, and after a real evacuation, and adjust your plan as needed.


13. Maintain a list of emergency services contacts and determine how you will get notification of the emergency and who will keep you informed on developments and/or the need to evacuate.

14. Use an audible and/or visible (strobe light) alarm system to alert workers to the emergency.

15. Determine a fast and reliable way to communicate with workers over the course of the emergency, such as a PA system, group text or runners that provide communication verbally or in written notes. Think about the privacy of information being shared about identifiable individuals. Is it necessary to prevent unofficial communication with outside groups (i.e., pictures posted to social media, unofficial family notifications, etc.)?

16. If workers are sheltering in place, provide updates every 15 minutes, whether or not the situation has changed. Encourage everyone to stay calm. “People might be very frightened, and want answers. They can begin to panic or want to leave and get to their car, which could create more danger.” Empathize with your employees and provide clear and frequent communication to ease their stress and anxiety.

How WSPS can help

• Emergency Preparedness for Workers (1 hour, eCourse)

• Emergency Response Planning (1.5 hours, eCourse)

• Emergency Response/Preparedness (article)

• Required elements of an emergency preparedness plan (Safety Tips video)

• How employers can prepare for an emergency while waiting for external response (Safety Tips video)

• How your businesses can prepare for a weather emergency (Safety Tips video)

• What should remote workers have on hand in case of an emergency? (Safety Tips video)

Check out the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management: 647-329-1100. Toll-free 24-hour line: 1-800-565-1842;

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Categorized in: WSPS