Emergency Preparedness and Natural Disasters: Evacuation Plans

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One of our friends in the community recently shared a story about a learning opportunity they had with their local fire department. In addition to topics in worker health and safety, they learned about the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code and the importance of emergency preparedness. Many health and safety resources may push OSHA as a regulatory incentive for keeping a safe workplace, but did you ever consider that in taking steps to keep employees safe, you may also be helping others? In maintaining a workplace that is free of recognized hazards, you may also be taking steps to protect customers, contractors, and even emergency responders from harm.

Background

We are a brewpub and production facility and in one year, we stepped our production up from 6,000 barrels annually to try to make 10,000 barrels. We bought out the warehouse space next door to our current facility to expand and upgrade our cellar and production space, as well as expand our taproom. We thought that the add-on would be simple enough: throw in some more tanks here, upgrade the brewhouse there, add a bigger cold room, hire a few more folks, no problem…

As we were expanding our facility, we wanted to continue to operate to keep up with the production schedule and annual sales goals. One day we were having some electrical work done and we think it glitched our central system panel causing our fire alarms to activate. There was so much to be done during this time and I had been really sleepless and stressed. I was sadly doing a bunch of paperwork in my office when the alarm went went off and I thought to myself, “Of course someone wants to burn the place down…” It took me a few seconds to realize what was actually going on, but I soon took action and started to try to figure out where the fire was coming from and see if everyone was okay.

I encountered my taproom staff first, and they informed me that the fire wasn’t in the kitchen as they were exiting the building. I should have left with them, but being the “responsible employer,” I decided to go back into the production area only to find my head brewer just standing on the platform with earplugs in as if nothing else was going on.

“Dude, you need to leave! Get out!”

“Just another few seconds until the final hop addition…”

“NOW!”

Mumbling and grumbling he followed me out the door. Didn’t I go over safety alarms with him when he was hired? I was so mad about his blatant disregard that I didn’t have a chance to check on the rest of the facility. Our alarm system is linked to our security system and so the fire department had been summoned and arrived shortly after we exited.

If I ever thought that my general industry job involved too much safety regulation and training, I was wrong. Fire fighters and other emergency responders have so much safety that goes into their response procedures. I often thought the safety protocols were there to rescue a person quicker or put out a fire faster. I guess I forgot that emergency response is only a job and, just like everyone else, fire fighters have families and lives outside of their profession. They’re not just going to run inside of a burning (or, in our case, potentially burning) building if they don’t have to. As the crew was setting up and beginning to assess the situation, the incident commander asks me, “Is everyone okay? Is anyone else still in the building?” Unfortunately, my response was, “Yeah… No… uh, I actually don’t know…”

I looked over towards the loading dock and was relieved to see most of my veteran cellar and production staff standing out there. A responder and I then hustled over to the front parking lot to see how the taproom folks were doing. Most of my FOH staff, the electrical contractors, and a few patrons were assembled. On both sides of the operation things still seemed very uncertain and scattered. Some folks strayed away from the group to make phone calls; a new intern exited out of a side door and decided to take a smoke break instead of look for the rest of us; it was shift change and a manager reported that two employees walked straight out to their cars and left the premises completely without checking in or making any sort of eye contact.

Eventually I was relieved to find out that there was likely not a fire and that the events were most likely caused by an alarm glitch. With the “all clear,” the incident commander and I did a sweep through the building. We found that one of my newer employees had been inside the whole time. He had been doing work in the cold room and unable to see or hear any sign of distress.

After this much-needed drill and impromptu walk through, the incident commander mentioned that he noticed some imminent danger items that needed to be taken care of. He recommended that I meet with the department fire prevention planner ASAP.

Lessons Learned

The following were our corrective action items and #LessonsLearned.

Evacuation Plan

We didn’t have a written evacuation plan of any sort and didn’t train people enough on what to do in the event of an emergency of any kind (fire, medical, weather, security). It was just assumed that we are all ripe with common sense and old enough to know that when a fire alarm goes off you leave the building.

It is required by OSHA and recommended by fire departments that employers have a developed emergency action plan and that employees are trained on basic emergency response and procedures. We now introduce everyone to the emergency action plans on the first day of work and refresh them on an annual basis in the form of unannounced drills and verbal training. Everyone now knows and understands that any alarm is to be taken seriously and that failure to act accordingly (even in a drill) will result in termination. If an emergency alarm is sounding, employees have been instructed to evacuate the building and tell anyone who may be lingering along their path to get out.

Lack of Accountability or Meeting Point

When the incident commander asked me whether everyone was okay, my heart sank. Since we didn’t have any kind of evacuation plan it led to a number of mistakes and added time to determining if my employees were alive and safe. While my intern was stupid for taking a smoke break, I was doubly stupid for not telling him where to meet us if he ever had to exit through a side door in the event of an emergency.

We now have a designated meeting spot that is easy to access and at a safe distance from the building if it were to be burning. Everyone has been instructed to meet there and check in with either myself or a shift manager, and that they are to remain at the meeting spot until given the “all clear.”

I wasn’t so mad about the folks making phone calls but I was steamed over the two guys that left altogether. In addition to not being able to account for them, they could have gotten in the way of the emergency responders and caused an accident as they sped off into the sunset.

On top of the designated meeting spot, shift managers are to check in with their crews early on to know who is at work that day as well as to have a general idea of what’s going on as far as tasks are concerned so that we can ensure that a newbie doesn’t get left in the cold room again (more on the cold room below).

Notification and Response Equipment

So the newbie got left in the cold room without even knowing that there was an alarm going off. It’s not sound proof in there, but we did tell him that it’s okay to wear headphones when doing warehouse inventory. Maybe he really couldn’t hear, but maybe it was also my fault for not telling him what to do when alarms go off. Either way, we have now installed a loud alarm and strobe light in the cold room.

We were also warned for not having enough fire extinguishers placed throughout the facility. Apparently, one at the entrance and one in the kitchen is not sufficient. Even with the two extinguishers we had, we did not provide any training for our staff on how to use them.

We were also asked to correct issues with excess combustibles (pallets stacked 20+ high) in an unsprinklered area. Finally, they also didn’t like the teetering stacks of kegs and packaging materials.

Egress Path

We thought that familiarity with the building was enough for our staff to know how to get out. I was informed that it isn’t just a matter of getting employees out of the building since we also have patrons who may be on a tour. Most importantly, if the fire department has to enter, a treacherous path or inability to see exit signs can put them at a higher level of danger and risk.

Since we were under renovation and in the middle of a packaging run, we did not have adequate exit signage at our new doors and there were full pallets, hoses, and other bottling items that were completely obstructing the egress path. There are now illuminated signs at each of the doors as well as marked lines where no equipment or product is to be stored, even temporarily.

Chemical Storage

Our hot liquor tank gets pretty hot but the space behind it makes for good chemical storage… but not really. We had some flammables (aerosols and isopropanol) and oily rags stored next to a potential heat source. Being a designated chemical storage area, the fire department was also quick to find oxidizing sanitizers very close by as well.

Permits

We weren’t told that we were out of compliance for doing renovations on the building, but that building permits are often required for certain work and that we should have been doing some sort of job hazard analysis for each phase of the remodel.

Other

We had a few electrical cords with bad wiring and an extension cord daisy chained (plugged into another extension cord). One of the cords was in a puddle of beer and cleaner.


Have any safety questions or lessons learned stories? We’d like to hear from you! Email us at safetyexchange@brewersassociation.org

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