MRO Magazine

Know the Drill: Safe companies rehearse emergency procedures


June 14, 2001
By PEM Magazine

A man lies face down, motionless. Next to him lie some wires that are attached to a nearby welding machine. They disappear inside a manhole at the bottom of a 20-foot tank. Inside the tank, another body lies unseen by the plant worker who is sauntering casually up to the tank. He stops when he sees the first victim on the ground, but doesn’t panic. He calmly and slowly speaks into his hand-held radio and in less than ten seconds, several other workers appear. The men are pushing a huge red cart, filled with stretchers, first aid equipment, oxygen tanks and chemical suits.

The team leaps into action. One man unplugs the wires and kills the electricity, as another performs CPR on the victim stretched out near the wires. The victim is loaded onto a stretcher carefully. Two men put on oxygen masks and enter the tank to rescue the victim lying inside. With help, they manage to get the second victim out of the tank and on to a stretcher.

Suddenly, all the men begin to laugh. One man kicks the first victim and says, "get up, Al. Time to get back to work." And even though there is a light-hearted end to this regular emergency drill at Hercules Canada’s Burlington, Ontario chemical plant, these men know that one day, this situation might be for real.

Hercules’ Burlington facility manufactures chemicals for the pulp and paper industry. The plant faces a number of potential risks in its day-to-day operations, including confined space emergencies, fires and chemical spills. That’s why employees at the Burlington plant formed an emergency response team a few years ago. They call themselves B.E.R.R.T. — the Burlington Emergency Response and Rescue Team.


Being prepared for an emergency means planning for it. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) says that a proper emergency plan includes a list of possible emergencies, consequences, required actions and written procedures for dealing with these emergencies.

The thought of creating such a plan might be daunting. ‘We’re too busy here.’ ‘Management doesn’t want to spend the money.’ ‘The employees aren’t interested.’ ‘We don’t need an emergency plan because we take all the proper safety precautions.’ ‘Emergencies might happen in other places, but they can’t happen to us.’ These are just a few objections that are commonly raised.

The truth is, no one knows when an emergency will arise. Recovering from an unforeseen disaster can set a company back for weeks, months or even permanently. Few companies can afford to let an emergency shut them down.

Gerry Willard, regional plant manager for Hercules Canada’s five cross-country chemical plants, began thinking about emergency planning about five years ago. "Our philosophy is ‘always be ready for any emergencies,’ " he says, "[but] I saw that was an area we were weak in."

Willard looked for ways to create a better and more in-depth emergency plan. His solution was to form the B.E.R.R.T. "We had a procedure, we had a book somewhere on the wall up there, and some of us had read it, but we didn’t have a lot of practice. My concern was, if we have an emergency, will Mike, or will Cathy, or will Joe out there… will they know what to do? Now, we know what to do."

Get everyone on board with a common goal
"The whole process has to have the support of management at the most senior level. And if it doesn’t, I’d almost say forget it," says Adrian Gordon, acting executive director of the Disaster Recovery Institute (DRI). You can’t begin to implement a thorough emergency plan until senior management is on board. If you are fortunate, the CEO or a vice president will begin to realize the risks involved in any business, and will either lend support or spearhead emergency planning.

Once you’ve got the support of management, it’s also crucial to get employees to buy in. At Hercules, employees were involved right from the beginning, and were instrumental in pushing the plan forward. "As the guys took over the ownership, it became fun, and that really drove it," says Michael Walsh, the safety specialist at Hercules’ Burlington plant. A company’s employees are the people most likely to be affected by a major emergency, and are therefore most likely to be responsible for implementing the plan.

After employees and management agree on the need for a plan, the DRI recommends forming an emergency team and setting some objectives. Hercules, for example, formed the B.E.R.R.T., and sat down to decide what their primary safety objectives were. "Our goal is to make sure we protect the human assets as best we can. To save lives and health," says Hercules’ Willard.

Brainstorm a customized plan
You’ve got a team together and you’ve established some goals. The next step in emergency planning is to identify all potential emergencies, what actions you need to take in the event of that emergency, and what resources you’ll need to make it happen.

The CCOHS offers some guidelines for how to brainstorm potential emergencies facing your plant. While most emergencies are sudden events, knowing your industry will help identify potential hot spots. Look at any past emergencies that might have occurred at your company. Are there any technological hazards associated with your industry, like fire, explosion, toxic substances or exposure to hazardous materials? Finally, remember to brainstorm for natural hazards as well, including floods, earthquakes, ice storms and other potential disasters courtesy of Mother Nature.

Next, you have to identify the resources you need to make it through an emergency. It might be helpful to establish a budget for resources, says DRI’s Gordon. Determine what resources are critical, and which ones can wait. Hercules, for example, created an emergency response "crash cart" that includes oxygen tanks, stretchers, coveralls, an axe, gloves, a first aid kit and a number of other resources to ensure the team’s ability to respond properly.

Draft the plan
It may seem that up until now you’ve spent a lot of time talking about emergencies, but no time actually writing a formal plan. According to the DRI, the planning stage is a critical one not to be ignored. "You’ve got to go a long way before writing a plan. Out of your strategies comes the plan," says Gordon.

As you begin writing the emergency plan, don’t be surprised if the plan is large and elaborate. "We have lots of them," says Hercules’ Willard. "The manual is about three inches thick. It includes a list of all the products we have on site and a list of phone numbers, people to call in case of an emergency."

While you may write plans to cover specific incidents that are likely to occur, you may also want to consider a general plan to cover unlikely disasters. "The emergency plan includes such things as an orderly shut-down of the plant, or a crash shut-down where you hit the kill button and get out. Evacuation is part of our plan," says Willard.

Put the plan into action
Even the best plan won’t do you any good if it’s sitting on a shelf in someone’s office. No one is going to think about running for the fire safety plan when the building is in flames. The most important step in emergency planning is to make sure it becomes part of everyone’s consciousness.

Hercules’ emergency plan is effective because it has been made a part of the workplace culture. Members of B.E.R.R.T. go through rigorous training sessions in areas like first aid, CPR, fire extinguisher training, confined space rescue and emergency spill response. They must also participate in emergency drills once every two weeks.

The team’s training began slowly. "We had to learn to sit up, learn to crawl, learn to walk and learn to run," says Michael Walsh. "It’s not knowing the basics that kills." Training started with simple scenarios, and worked its way up to full-scale disaster simulations.

Hercules didn’t do it by themselves, either. Gerry Willard says, "We got a local trainer who deals in emergency response. We got them in to teach us spill response, extractions, evacuations. We got another company in to help us do first-aid and CPR training." Relying on outside help can ensure your employees are properly trained.

But can you have training overkill? Not according to Willard. "Think of it like a football team," he says. "Most football players know how to play the game, but they need constant practice to hone their skills. It’s the same type of thing here."

An emergency plan is never done
Finally, your emergency plan is finished. It’s well documented. Employees and managers are now trained in emergency response. A job well done, right?

Think again. It’s crucial to remember that a good emergency plan is constantly evolving to account for changes in the workplace. CCOHS recommends reviewing plans at least once a year, and revising a plan if it doesn’t work in a real emergency situation. And don’t forget the most important part of emergency preparedness: trying to ensure emergencies don’t happen. "Not only does [our plan] make us prepared in case of an emergency," says Hercules’ Gerry Willard, "it makes everybody that much more careful because they know what it can cause. It raises the whole safety consciousness."

Alison Dunn is the assistant editor of PEM Plant Engineering and Maintenance and the editor of You can reach her at