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5 steps to set up an emergency plan according to ISO 14001

Do you have a personal emergency plan? Probably not, but if you live in an area of very high risk of e.g., earthquake, it is a good idea to have a procedure regarding what to do in such situation. For example, your personal plan could be to go in the smallest room, which is most resistant to collapsing, or to fill a bathtub with fresh water because you can expect an interruption in water supply; you may also want to prepare an escape bag in case of evacuation.

If you own and invest in a small or medium company, or run a business, and have no emergency plan – you have to STOP & THINK about it. It is too risky to lose everything overnight.

To set up an emergency plan in a small company you don’t need Ph.D. in environmental science – just follow these steps and do not worry if your plan is not perfect. You will improve it over time.

Purpose of an emergency plan

The aim of an emergency plan is to guide personnel in an accident or emergency situation to prevent or minimize injury, damage and material loss. An additional goal is to prevent or mitigate environmental impact from the accident or emergency.

ISO 14001 states in clause 4.4.7 Emergency preparedness and response that the “organization shall establish, implement and maintain a procedure(s) to identify potential emergency situations and potential accidents. The organization shall respond to actual emergency situations and accidents.”

It is “good practice” for the emergency plan to identify major risks of accidents, define preventive measures and key personnel, list contact details, refer to SDS (safety data sheet of dangerous substances), and specify emergency equipment and response. It should be written and structured to be read quickly and easily.

Explanation of basic terms

Before going into the details, let’s explain some basic terms.

ISO 14001 does not define terms like incident, accident and emergency. These terms are defined and used mainly in OH&S (Safety at work).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “accident” as “an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.” Consider that the first part of the definition is generic and the same in all cases, but the effect depends upon the specific situation (e.g., injury is related to safety at work, environmental damage is related to environmental management, or a crash involving road vehicles is related to a road accident).

The definitions below are not official; they are simplified in order to explain basic differences in terms related to environmental incident, accident, and emergency situations.

  • Incident – an unplanned, potentially harmful or damaging situation or event, not resulting in environmental damage or other loss.
  • Accident – an unplanned, potentially harmful or damaging situation or event, resulting in environmental damage or other loss.
  • Emergency – an unplanned situation or event resulting in involvement of the public emergency services, police, or the environmental regulatory authorities.

Steps in setting up an emergency plan

The following steps will explain how to set up your emergency plan according to ISO 14001 and based on “good practice.” ISO 14001 is generic standard, so you should customize it to your specific situation and needs.


Step 1: Identification. You have to identify the specific potential accident related to your circumstances and type of activity. If you run an office, a fire may be your only potential risk.

Some types of accident and emergency:

  • fire
  • chemical explosion
  • spillage or release of materials that are corrosive, toxic, flammable, or carcinogenic

Step 2: Prevention. You have to brainstorm with your personnel for preventive measures related to every type of accident. ISO 14001 states that emergency plan(s) shall include actions to prevent and mitigate associated environmental impacts.

Preventive measures depend upon your specific situation and may include e.g.:


Step 3: Emergency plan. Depending on complexity and needs, the organization should establish one or more emergency plans.

An emergency plan aims to:

  • define the types of accident and environmental impacts (step 1)
  • define preventive measures (step 2)
  • provide contact information to key personnel (on-site & off-site)
  • identify the location of appropriate technical data and emergency equipment (site layout)
  • highlight any special instructions or actions
  • identify and provide names of people trained in first aid

Make sure that all your staff knows about the plan, where to find it, and what it contains.  It is important that they know how to prevent accidents and what to do in case an accident occurs.You should, as stated in ISO 14001, review and revise your emergency plan where necessary,particularly after the occurrence of accidents or emergency situations

The Emergency Plan is not intended to be a comprehensive instruction with all background information. It is a clear and simple operational procedure for dealing with accidents.

Step 4: Training and drills (testing for training effectiveness). You have to train your employees about preventive measures and your emergency plan, and you should include in the training plan all necessary background information. Unfortunately, this is not enough, because in a real emergency situation, people’s behavior is unpredictable. To be sure that personnel will react according to the emergency plan, you have to, as stated in ISO 14001, perform periodic drills based on predefined scenarios. How often? That depends on the risk. For example, atomic submarines have daily or weekly drills. Frequency of testing should be related to the environmental risk of your site, staff turnover, the introduction of new processes or materials, and conclusions from any previous exercises or incidents. For the average SME, yearly drills will usually be satisfactory.

Step 5: Evaluation and improvement. Drill reports have to take into consideration gaps between the emergency plan and the drill result. The output of the drill report should focus on closing gaps and any other recommendations related to improvement of the emergency plan. For example, you may notice during the drill that free access for fire trucks is blocked by pallets for raw materials. You have to highlight this in the report, followed with, as stated in ISO 14001, corrective actions for eliminating cause(s) of incidents in order to prevent recurrence. What does that mean? You have to find out why free access was blocked, e.g., due to the lack  of warning labels, or employee training, or something else, followed by actions to prevent it from happening again in the future. With this approach, you will continue to improve your performance over time, which is one of the fundamental requirements of ISO 14001.

Even with the best preparation and prevention, accidents still happen. When they do, you will be prepared and ready for a fast reaction to minimize injury, environmental damage, equipment loss, and eliminate unnecessary calls to the public emergency services.

Download this free ISO 14001 waste management checklist to keep track of all steps during the ISO 14001 waste management process.