Emergency and Evacuation Planning Guide for Employers

Emergency Action Plan

The purpose of an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) is to facilitate and organize employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies. The elements of the plan should include, but are not limited to:

  • Evacuation procedures and emergency escape route assignments
  • Procedures to be followed by employees who remain to operate critical plant operations before they evacuate
  • Procedures to account for all employees after an emergency evacuation has been completed
  • Rescue and medical duties for those employees who are to perform them
  • Means of reporting fires and other emergencies
  • Names or job titles of persons who can be contacted for further information or explanation of duties under the plan

Evacuation Elements

A disorganized evacuation can result in confusion, injury, and property damage. When developing your emergency action plan, it is important to determine the following:

  • Conditions under which an evacuation would be necessary
  • Conditions under which it may be better to shelter-in-place
  • A clear chain of command and designation of the person in your business authorized to order an evacuation or shutdown
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits
  • Specific evacuation procedures for high-rise buildings
    • For employers
    • For employees
  • Procedures for assisting visitors and employees to evacuate, particularly those with disabilities or who do not speak English
  • Designation of what, if any, employees will remain after the evacuation alarm to shut down critical operations or perform other duties before evacuating
  • A means of accounting for employees after an evacuation
  • Special equipment for employees

Conditions Under Which an Evacuation Would Be Necessary

A wide variety of emergencies both man-made and natural, may require a workplace to be evacuated. These emergencies include explosions, toxic material releases, radiological and biological accidents.

Employers will want their employees to respond differently to these different threats. Your plan should identify when and how employees are to respond to different types of emergencies.

The type of building you work in may be a factor in your decision. Most buildings are vulnerable to the effects of disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods or explosions. The extent of the damage depends on the type of emergency and the building’s construction.


Chemical, biological, or radiological contaminants may be released into the environment in such quantity and/or proximity to a place of business that it is safer to remain indoors rather than to evacuate employees. Such releases may be either accidental or intentional.

"Shelter-in-place" means selecting an interior room or rooms within your facility, or ones with no or few windows, and taking refuge there. In many cases, local authorities will issue advice to shelter-in-place via TV or radio.

Implementation of the EAP (Chain of Command)

Drafting an EAP is not enough to ensure the safety of your employees. When an evacuation is necessary, you will need responsible, trained individuals who can supervise and coordinate activities to ensure a safe and successful evacuation. An EAP will be useful only if its content is up-to-date and employees are sufficiently educated and trained before an actual evacuation. The following sections will help you successfully implement your plan:

1. Authority

It is common practice to select a responsible individual to lead and coordinate your emergency plan and evacuation. It is critical that employees know who the coordinator is and understand that this person has the authority to make decisions during emergencies. The coordinator should be responsible for assessing the situation to determine whether an emergency exists requiring activation of the emergency procedures, overseeing emergency procedures, notifying and coordinating with outside emergency services, and directing shutdown of utilities or plant operations if necessary.

In other instances, local emergency officials, such as the local fire department, may order you to evacuate your premises. If you have access to radio or television, listen to newscasts to keep informed and follow whatever official orders you receive.

When emergency officials, such as the local fire department, respond to an emergency at your workplace, they will assume responsibility for the safety of building occupants and have the authority to make decisions regarding evacuation and whatever other actions are necessary to protect life and property. The highest-ranking responder will assume the incident command role and will work with the onsite emergency coordinator, but will be responsible for directing all response activities.

2. Employee Training

Before implementing the emergency action plan, the employer should designate and train enough people to assist in the safe and orderly emergency evacuation of employees. Training should be offered to employees when you develop your initial plan and to all newly hired employees. Employees should be retrained when their actions or responsibilities under the plan change, or when the plan changes due to a change in the layout or design of the facility, new equipment, hazardous materials, or processes are introduced that affect evacuation routes, or new types of hazards are introduced that require special actions.

Educate your employees about the types of emergencies that may occur and train them in the proper course of action. The size of your workplace and workforce, processes used, materials handled, and the availability of onsite or outside resources will determine your training requirements. Be sure all employees understand the function and elements of your emergency action plan, including types of potential emergencies, reporting procedures, alarm systems, evacuation plans, and shutdown procedures. Discuss any special hazards you may have onsite such as flammable materials, toxic chemicals, radioactive sources, or water-reactive substances. An employer should inform employees of the fire hazards present in the workplace. Clearly communicate to your employees who will be in charge during an emergency to minimize confusion.

General training for your employees should also address the following:

  • Individual roles and responsibilities
  • Threats, hazards and protective actions
  • Notification, warning and communications procedures
  • Means for locating family members in an emergency
  • Emergency response procedures
  • Evacuation, shelter and accountability procedures
  • Location and use of common emergency equipment
  • Emergency shutdown procedures

And remember, if training is not reinforced it will be forgotten. Consider retraining employees annually.

You also may want to train your employees in first-aid procedures, including protection against blood borne pathogens; respiratory protection, including use of an escape-only respirator; and methods for preventing unauthorized access to the site.

Once you have reviewed your emergency action plan with your employees and everyone has had the proper training, it is a good idea to hold practice drills as often as necessary to keep employees prepared. Include outside resources such as fire and police departments when possible. After each drill, gather management and employees to evaluate the effectiveness of the drill. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your plan and work to improve it.

3. Plan Review, Coordination and Update

Once you have completed your emergency action plan, review it carefully with your employees and post it in an area where all employees will have access to it.

The employer should review with each employee upon initial assignment those parts of the EAP that the employee should know to protect him or herself in the event of an emergency. The written plans should be available to the employees and kept at the workplace. For employers with 10 or fewer employees, the plans may be communicated orally, and the employer does not need to maintain written plans.

The plans also should be reviewed with other companies or employee groups in your building to ensure that your efforts will be coordinated with theirs, enhancing the effectiveness of your plan. In addition, if you rely on assistance from local emergency responders such as the fire department, local HAZMAT teams or other outside responders, you may find it useful to review and coordinate your emergency plans with these organizations. This ensures that you are aware of the capabilities of these outside responders and that they know what you expect of them.

It is a good idea to hold practice evacuation drills. Evacuation drills permit employees to become familiar with the emergency procedures, their egress routes and assembly locations, so that if an actual emergency should occur, they will respond properly. Drills should be conducted as often as necessary to keep employees prepared. Include outside resources, such as fire and police departments, when possible. After each drill, gather management and employees to evaluate the effectiveness of the drill. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your plan and work to improve it.

Operations and personnel change frequently, and an outdated plan will be of little use in an emergency. You should review the contents of your plan regularly and update it whenever an employee’s emergency actions or responsibilities change; or when there is a change in the layout or design of the facility, new equipment, hazardous materials; or processes are introduced that affect evacuation routes; or new types of hazards are introduced that require special actions. The most common outdated item in plans is the facility and agency contact information. Consider placing this important information on a separate page in the front of the plan so that it can be readily updated.

Routes and Exits

Most employers create maps from floor diagrams with arrows that designate the exit route assignments. These maps should include locations of exits, assembly points, and equipment (such as fire extinguishers, first aid kits, spill kits) that may be needed in an emergency. Exit routes should be:

  • Clearly marked and well lit
  • Wide enough to accommodate the number of evacuating personnel
  • Unobstructed and clear of debris at all times
  • Unlikely to expose evacuating personnel to additional hazards

When preparing drawings that show evacuation routes and exits, post them prominently for all employees to see.

Employer Responsibilities

When there is an emergency, getting workers out of high-rise buildings poses special challenges. Preparing in advance to safely evacuate the building is critical to the safety of employees who work there.

What actions should employers take to help ensure safe evacuations of high-rise buildings?

  • Don't lock fire exits or block doorways, halls, or stairways
  • Test regularly all back-up systems and safety systems, such as emergency lighting and communication systems, and repair them as needed
  • Develop a workplace evacuation plan, post it prominently on each floor, and review it periodically to ensure its effectiveness
  • Identify and train floor wardens, including back-up personnel, who will be responsible for sounding alarms and helping to evacuate employees
  • Conduct emergency evacuation drills periodically
  • Establish designated meeting locations outside the building for workers to gather following an evacuation; the locations should be safe distance from the building and in an area where people can assemble safely without interfering with emergency response teams
  • Identify personnel with special needs or disabilities who may need help evacuating and assign one or more people, including back-up personnel, to help them
  • Ensure that during off-hour periods, systems are in place to notify, evacuate, and account for off-hour building occupants
  • Post emergency numbers near telephones

What should employers do when an emergency occurs?

  • Sound appropriate alarms and instruct employees to leave the building
  • Notify, police, firefighters or other appropriate emergency personnel
  • Take a head count of employees at designated meeting locations, and notify emergency personnel of any missing workers

Employee Responsibilities

What actions should employees know before an emergency occurs?

  • Be familiar with the work site's emergency evacuation plan
  • Know the pathway to at least two alternative exits from every room/area at the workplace
  • Recognize the sound/signaling method of the fire/evacuation alarms
  • Know who to contact in an emergency and how to contact them
  • Know how many desks or cubicles are between your workstation and two of the nearest exits so you can escape in the dark if necessary
  • Know where the fire/evacuation alarms are located and how to use them
  • Report damaged or malfunction safety systems and back-up systems

What should employees do in an emergency?

  • Leave the area quickly but in an orderly manner, following the work site's emergency evacuation plan; go directly to the nearest fire-free and smoke-free stairwell recognizing that in some circumstances the only available exit route may contain limited amounts of smoke or fire
  • Listen carefully for instructions over the building's public address system
  • Crawl low, under the smoke to breathe cleaner air if there is a fire; test doors for heat before opening them by placing the back of your hand against the door so you do not burn your palm and fingers; do not open a hot door, but find another exit route; keep "fire doors" closed to slow the spread of smoke and fire
  • Avoid using elevators when evacuating a burning building
  • Report to the designated meeting place
  • Do not re-enter the building until directed by authorities

What should employees do if trapped?

  • Stay calm and take steps to protect yourself
  • Go to a room with an outside window, and telephone for help if possible
  • Stay where rescuers can see you and wave a light-colored cloth to attract attention
  • Open windows if possible, but be ready to shut them if smoke rushes in
  • Stuff clothing, towels, or newspapers around the cracks in doors to prevent smoke from entering your room


Procedures for Assisting Visitors and Employees to Evacuate, Particularly Those with Disabilities or Who Do Not Speak English

Many employers designate individuals as evacuation wardens to help move employees from danger to safe areas during an emergency. Generally, one warden for every 20 employees should be adequate, and the appropriate number of wardens should be available at all times during working hours.

Wardens may be responsible for checking offices, bathrooms and other spaces before being the last person to exit an area. They might also be tasked with ensuring that fire doors are closed when exiting. All employees designated to assist in emergency evacuation procedures should be trained in the complete workplace layout and various alternative escape routes if the primary evacuation route becomes blocked. Employees designated to assist in emergencies should be made aware of employees with special needs (who may require extra assistance during an evacuation), how to use the buddy system and any hazardous areas to avoid during an emergency evacuation.

Visitors also should be accounted for following an evacuation and may need additional assistance when exiting. Some employers have all visitors and contractors sign in when entering the workplace and use this list when accounting for all persons in the assembly area. The hosts and/or area wardens, if established, are often tasked with helping these individuals safely evacuate.

You also may find it beneficial to coordinate the action plan with other employers when several employers share the worksite.

Employees Who May Remain to Shut Down Operations Before Evacuating

Certain equipment and processes should be shut down in stages or over time. In other instances it is not possible or practical for equipment or certain process to be shut down under certain emergency situations. This condition, which is not unusual for certain large manufacturers operating complex processes, is not typical of small enterprises that normally can turn off equipment or utilities if necessary and evacuate. However some small enterprises may require designated employees remain behind briefly to operate fire extinguishers or shut down gas and/or electrical systems and other special equipment that could be damaged if left operating or create additional hazards to emergency responders (such as releasing hazardous materials).

Each employer should review their operation and determine whether total and immediate evacuation is possible for various types of emergencies. The preferred approach, and the one most often taken by small enterprises, is immediate evacuation of all their employees when the evacuation alarm is sounded.

If any employees will stay behind, the plan should describe in detail the procedures to be followed by these employees. All employees remaining behind should be capable of recognizing when to abandon the operation or task and evacuate themselves before their egress path is blocked. In small establishments it is common to include in your plan locations where utilities (such as electrical and gas) can be shut down for all or part of the facility either by your own employees or by emergency response personnel.

Accounting for Employees after an Evacuation

To ensure the fastest, most accurate accountability of your employees, you may want to consider including these steps in your emergency action plan:

  • Designate assembly areas where employees should gather after evacuating.
  • Take a head count after the evacuation. Identify the names and last known locations of anyone not accounted for and pass them to the official in charge.
  • Establish a method for accounting for non-employees such as suppliers and customers.
  • Establish procedures for further evacuation in case the incident expands. This may consist of sending employees home by normal means or providing them with transportation to an off-site location. 

Special Equipment for Employees

Your employees may need personal protective equipment to evacuate during an emergency. Personal protective equipment must be based on the potential hazards in the workplace. Assess your workplace to determine potential hazards and the appropriate controls and protective equipment for those hazards. Personal protective equipment may include items such as the following:

  • Safety glasses, goggles or face shields for eye protection
  • Hard hats and safety shoes for head and foot protection
  • Proper respirators
  • Chemical suits, gloves, hoods and boots for body protection from chemicals
  • Special body protection for abnormal environmental conditions, such as extreme temperatures
  • Any other special equipment or warning devices necessary for hazards associated with your worksite

Information adapted from U.S. Department of Labor.