Emergency Action and Incident Response Plans Can Be Critical During a Crisis

At a recent conference, an attendee asked, “If I have a boat on fire in a covered slip, what do I do?” The question seems representative of the industry that is often reactive. Rather than focus on how to respond to a fire (no doubt, that is of the utmost importance), it may be better to start with a review of how to prepare for an incident and put together a detailed response plan.

The marine industry can be dangerous. With the presence of flammable materials, electrical systems over water, and machinery that could result in serious injuries, marine businesses should have a plan in place that is understood by all employees. When incidents occur, having this plan can be an effective tool to manage the crisis.

A Case Study

On a Saturday afternoon, a vessel approaches a fuel dock. The vessel has five people on-board. Two dock attendants begin to service the vessel as four passengers disembark to visit the ship store. The dock attendants are ages 17 and 22. The younger attendant is the child of the ship store manager and the other is the nephew of the lead service technician. One of the attendants begins a pumpout operation, while the other begins a fueling procedure. Upon completing service, the vessel owner attempts to move the boat from the fuel dock to a courtesy dock. In the process of starting the vessel’s engine, there is an explosion.

The two employees and the vessel owner are blown into the water by the force of the blast. Rescue efforts begin. The 17-year-old employee cannot swim and is critically burned. Due to the fact that the vessel owner was only wearing a swimsuit, that person has significant burns to the upper portion of the body. The third victim was closest to the blast and has severe burns to the face and neck area. Due to the location of the facility and the extent of the burns, each victim is flown from the facility to a nearby burn trauma center and will have extended hospital stays.

The marina manager gets home late that evening after spending time at the hospital checking on the status of each victim. A text message from a customer reveals that the local news station covered the story on the evening news. After checking voicemail, the marina realized at least five news outlets have left messages seeking comment. A few days later, the marina manager is contacted by an attorney representing the vessel owner. The same day, officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) arrive at the facility.

The scenario above could happen at any facility on any given day. Perhaps it may not be a fueling incident, but one could easily change the narrative to focus around the most dangerous aspects of any given facility. The case study is, by design, a worst case scenario. A business is dealing with employees and a customer that are injured.

Without an Incident Response Plan in place, the manager is left to navigate uncharted territory. Crisis management and critical decision making is compromised by stress, anxiety and emotions. Without clearly defined actions, the manager/owner will become easily overwhelmed.

Emergency Action Plan

How does one best manage the scenario as described in the case study? First, every facility should have an Emergency Action Plan. An emergency action plan (EAP) is a written document required by OSHA standards. [29 CFR 1910.38(a)] The purpose of an EAP is to facilitate and organize employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies. The EAP should cover a host of topics that are possible in the marina. Topics may include a vessel on fire, weather related incidents, a sinking vessel, fuel spills, and more.

As the EAP covers employer and employee actions during an emergency, each business should have an Incident Response Plan that can be activated once the emergency has subsided. The incident response plan should include topics, such as securing a hazard, securing the accident scene, and notifying proper points of contact (ownership, insurance, OSHA, attorneys). At this point, the manager is at the stage of being overwhelmed by the incident.

The case study above is also, by design, a worst case scenario from an OSHA perspective. Two employees are hospitalized. One of those affected employees is a minor and dependent child of another employee. The business failed to report the incident within the required time frame. The news media is covering the story and, in all likelihood, the first responders or medical professionals will report to OSHA.

Without a plan in the place, the manager in the case study is unprepared for the OSHA visit following the incident. At this point in time, a business cannot manage the OSHA process reactively. Documents such as the OSHA 300 series injury reports and Safety Data Sheets must be provided to OSHA upon request. Failure to have those documents can only compound the impact the incident will have on the business.

Best Practices

These tips will help prepare for marinas for action during a crisis:

Develop an Emergency Action Plan;
Train employees on company policies related to emergency response;
Ensure resources, such as fire extinguishers, safety ladders and life rings, are in good order;
Maintain a comprehensive safety program with:
Documents (OSHA 300, SDS, Written Policies, Training Records)
Hazard Abatement/Mitigation
Seek Legal Counsel by:
Finding an attorney that specializes in the field (i.e. OSHA case law);
Knowing how to preserve accident scene/evidence.

Businesses that are prepared for the worst can weather the incident. At the end of the day, having an employee or customer injured at the facility is terrible. Having plans in place can not only help manage a crisis, it may ultimately lead to preventing an accident in the first place.

Robert Smith is director of marine safety programs for MYMIC Training Technologies in Portsmouth, Virginia. He can be reached at or by phone at 757/589-5391.

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