When a safety incident occurs, it’s human nature to panic. Even first responders struggle to stay calm and think rationally in emergencies. But, keeping a level head in a crisis is crucial to ensuring everyone escapes danger without a serious injury or fatality (SIF).
Utility workers face compound hazards every day on the job, which makes it especially important for them to remain calm and organized during a safety incident. But when your colleague falls into a trench or gets struck by a falling hammer, how can you remain focused and ready to respond?
Follow the Three Ps of emergency response: Plan, practice, and stay present.
3 Steps for Improving your Response During a Safety Incident
1. Prepare your emergency action plan (EAP).
Most utilities are required to develop and implement EAPs by law, but any organization can improve its safety by taking the time to prepare one. These plans set out vital information and clear procedures to follow when an incident occurs, letting workers spring into action without wasting time.
Strong EAPs incorporate the following information:
- Step-by-step emergency procedures — It’s critical that any EAP spells out clear and proven actions to take during and immediately after a safety incident. These may include details of how to evacuate an area, how to contain a hazard, how to report a fire or other emergency, how to alert workers and management, and other activities that reduce the risk of a bad outcome.
- Emergency response teams — EAPs also need to list the designated roles and responsibilities of crew members working that day, including any skills and relevant training (e.g., first-aid certifications, fire marshal experience, etc.) Additionally, organizations may want to make this list available at locations on site and equip workers with badges that provide an easy visual cue to their safety skills.
- Maps — EAPs typically include maps for first-aid equipment locations and evacuation muster points. But because so much utility work involves underground assets, utility EAPs should add updated maps of buried gas lines, water mains, and other critical infrastructure as available.
- Standard hazards — 13 high-energy hazards common on work sites cause the majority of SIFs for utility workers. EAPs can provide useful reminders of these hazards, appropriate controls, and immediate interventions to take should an incident occur.
Many EAPs involve standard best practices, but it can help to customize plans to your specific tasks and work environment. Customizing your EAP grants the opportunity to identify gaps in your safety capabilities and shore them up with additional training or resources. It’s also important to review your EAP regularly — at least once a year or whenever you experience significant changes in staff, process, or technology.
Here are some additional resources that can help your team build a thorough EAP:
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Emergency preparedness and response
- National Safety Council: Onsite emergency response plan guide and CD kit
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: Emergency planning.
- Infrastructure Health and Safety Association: Emergency response planning for construction projects
2. Practice your EAP
Plans help prepare workers for emergencies, but they’re only effective if workers know them well and can execute them quickly. For these reasons, it’s important to hold practice drills.
Drills keep roles, duties, and details clear in workers’ minds. OSHA encourages organizations to arrange practice sessions for responders and personnel to rehearse the EAP together.
“It is also a good idea to include outside resources, such as fire and police departments, in the practice drills whenever possible,” suggests the OSHA Emergency Preparedness webpage. “After each drill, employers should: gather management and workers together to evaluate the effectiveness of the drill; identify the strengths and weaknesses of the plan; and [develop] ways to improve the plan.”
Keeping training up to date is also critical, as it provides workers with experience and useful tips as well as practical understanding of the EAP. Training also equips workers with additional safety skills to extend your EAP or address a skills gap on your team.
Here are further resources on safety response training:
- American Red Cross training and certifications
- NSC workplace safety training
- National CPR Foundation’s first-aid certification class
3. Stay present and take action
Ideally, a safety incident never happens. But when one does occur, your crew needs to put your EAP into action.
But even when you’re prepared for a safety incident, panic can still arise. This fight-flight-or-freeze response can overwhelm your workers on site, making it difficult to focus and impairing their judgment.
Overcoming this response and remaining calm is essential to executing your EAP effectively. Responders on utility sites can start by regaining control over their emotions, communicating clearly, and following the advice of the Red Cross.
- Breathe deeply — Panic can cause hyperventilation, which can leave you feeling weak, lightheaded, and distracted. Instead, focus on taking slow, deep breaths. Meditation app Headspace says “breathing deeply stimulates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing our blood pressure and heart rate and relaxing our muscles.”
St. John Ambulance recommends these steps to slow your breathing and calm yourself down.
- Take a deep breath in. As you breathe in, count 1 - 2 - 3. (When you breathe in, you should feel your diaphragm — underneath your lungs — expand.)
- On three, pause your inhale.
- Exhale at the same pace: 1 - 2 - 3.
- Communicate clearly — Your EAP already includes a communication plan, but your crew must still follow it in the moment:
- Remember to speak calmly and clearly, especially if you’re relaying important information to safety personnel.
- If you hear someone call for a specific kind of help that matches your skillset, answer back loudly and clearly.
- Follow a clear chain of command, as recommended by OSHA.
- Use a clear, designated emergency signal, such as a siren, whistle, or flashing light.
- Consider a back-up communication plan in case your primary process is compromised by the emergency.
- Stay present, pay attention to the scenario, and remain ready to take action as needed.
- Check, call, care — The Red Cross provides three simple steps to follow in any emergency: check, call, care. Check the person who may be injured, call for emergency response, and provide care for any life-threatening conditions in line with first aid.
Utility workers face compound hazards on job sites. But by planning, practicing, and staying present, they can increase the chance that any safety incidents will result in the best possible outcome.