So here we are, seven months of 2020 are gone and this whole COVID-19 pandemic isn’t getting better. What to do with evacuation drills? Do we postpone them to limit personnel exposure? Do we actually need to still do them? Do we carry on desktop exercises instead of emergency drills? Every situation is different and you may need to come up with you best option.
Whilst some work places are in lock down and therefore the need to evacuate the workplace is non-existent, other businesses have opted for a low-density working arrangements, split teams or living at the workplace. Let’s go over the basics to determine what is sensible in each case.
Business as Usual
If your workplace has kept its regular activity, you should keep the evacuation drills going. Make sure that the planning allows for appropriate protective measures (wear face masks, keep the necessary distance between occupants etc.) and that the people evacuating understand how to apply them in that context. It is also a good idea to police compliance with these measures, especially in tight areas such as stair wells. And you should also consider whether new assembly points need to be stipulated.
A real emergency requiring evacuation does not care that anything else is going on! People must understand how to evacuate the facility while maintaining their personal protections.
In extreme cases you could do a risk assessment considering the relative utility of conduct of drilling. On one hand you’ll have the potential risk of contagion and on the other the risk of not knowing how to evacuate properly. If the local regulations permit it, you may end up substituting the drills for desktop reviews until the pandemic risk has decreased. Or you can make use of an evacuation app like EVA Emergency to trigger the alarm and at the same time specify that people don’t need to move -a ‘don’t move’ drill! ;-)-
Low Density Occupancy
Low density occupancy can be the result of some personnel working from home or the team being split in sub-teams. We know this to be the case in some essential services operational facilities such as water treatment plants. The production and maintenance teams are split in two -or more- and contact between different teams’ members is eliminated. When one team is working on site the other one is working from home and vice versa. This way, should an employee be infected, only half of the workforce would be put is self-isolation, limiting the effect on the service delivery.
Again, a risk assessment should be undertaken to determine the need to do emergency drills. Since occupancy is lower than usual the risk of interpersonal contagion is also diminished. However every sub-team would have to do the drill, which may mean you have to allocate emergency coordinator and warden roles to other employees, providing additional information or. Don’t forget that despite COVID-19, all workers need to understand their responsibilities. You don’t want an emergency to occur when the nominated warden is working from home!
In extreme situations when the workplace has been completely vacated due to the coronavirus -whether as a result of a general lock-down order or management decision- you won’t have to drill anything. However you need to consider the situation when an employee genuinely needs to go to the workplace. What risks are associated? Do you have a policy to have at least two persons in the workplace regularly? Do you need to avoid any field work whilst alone on site? Do you have surveillance cameras -both for safety and for security purposes-? Does the workplace need a person to liaise with the emergency services in case of fire?
Whatever the case, check the regulations and comply with the health authorities recommendations. And don’t forget that the evacuation procedure is only part of the broader emergency plan which needs to be maintained -i.e. including COVID-19 procedures-. This ain’t over yet unfortunately, too many unknowns and only limited medical progress 🙁