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Workplace Emergency Preparedness: Damar Hamlin’s Sudden Collapse During a Monday Night Football Game Spotlights the Importance of Planning for the Unexpected

On January 2, 2023, 24-year-old Damar Hamlin, safety for the Buffalo Bills, suddenly collapsed on the field during a Monday night football game with the former Super Bowl-contending Cincinnati Bengals. As millions watched the playoff-deciding game, Hamlin tackled Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins during what appeared to be a normal and routine play in the first quarter. After the tackle, Hamlin quickly stood up, took a few steps, swayed a few times, and then collapsed backward. It became apparent that something was really wrong, and he was in need of lifesaving support. Medical personnel immediately surrounded him, performed CPR, and used a defibrillator to get his heart beating again. As Hamlin lie motionless and in critical condition, the players, coaches, and fans on both sides of the team watched in horror and rallied around him in support, praying for him on the field and in the hospital. Days after the devastating incident, Hamlin’s medical team reported that he was recovering from a cardiac arrest. Since then, he has shown remarkable improvement, continues to regain his strength, and has recently been released from the hospital.

emergency action plan

A Quick (and Vital) Response

The NFL’s emergency action plan (EAP) has been credited with helping save Hamlin’s life. After Hamlin’s collapse, the first responders, who were part of the Bills’ medical team, immediately ran out to the field, assessed his condition, and quickly signaled that Hamlin was in need of critical response. A few minutes later, the Bills’ medical personnel administered CPR and used a defibrillator to restart his heart. Hamlin was able to quickly receive the medical care and attention he needed within the first few minutes after his heart stopped beating. When an emergency such as this occurs, a quick response is critical because when the heart stops beating, the brain stops receiving oxygen, and permanent brain damage can begin after only 4 minutes without oxygen. Fortunately, Hamlin was able to quickly receive the care he needed.

But how did everything work so smoothly? Why was Hamlin able to receive critical care so quickly? Why did the first responders’ efforts seem so choreographed and rehearsed? Well, the short answer is because their efforts were choreographed and rehearsed.

As part of the NFL’s EAP, teams are required to rehearse their emergency response plan multiple times before the start of the season. Additionally, before each game, the team and medical personnel meet on the field to discuss their health and safety procedures. On average, there are approximately 30 healthcare providers on-site in an NFL game to provide immediate care to players. During the pregame meeting, a lead physician is designated and responsible for making crucial decisions in the event of an emergency situation such as Hamlin’s. 

Assessing Your Emergency Action Plan

What can employers learn from such a well-rehearsed EAP? 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, almost every business is required to have an EAP. After evaluating your current EAP, is there more that could be done? How often should employers communicate their EAP to employees?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Evaluate required elements. Federal, state, and local laws may require employers to implement specific provisions in their EAPs. As part of an effective EAP, the first step should be to review any applicable laws to ensure full compliance. 
  2. Perform a risk assessment. Before drafting an EAP, employers should perform a risk assessment to identify any likely hazards. Understanding potential risks enables employers to develop plans and procedures for protecting employees, visitors, contractors, and anyone else in the facility.   
  3. Draft a written EAP. Draft a clearly written EAP that outlines the procedures for reporting and responding to emergencies. A simple EAP may suffice in small offices and retail shops where there are few or no hazardous materials or where employees may quickly evacuate in case of an emergency. However, more complex procedures may be required in workplaces containing hazardous materials or in workplaces where delayed evacuation is required to shut down critical equipment.
  4. Train your employees. Before implementing the EAP, employers should review the EAP with each employee. Educate employees about the types of emergencies that may occur, and train them in the proper course of action.
  5. Designate leaders. Appoint an evacuation team leader, and assign employees to direct evacuation of the building. Ideally, at least one person should be assigned to each floor to direct employees to the nearest safe exit or keep people away from unsafe areas. Employers should designate enough leaders to assist in the safe and orderly implementation of the EAP.
  6. Posting. Post the EAP in conspicuous places in the workplace and on the company intranet. The EAP should be easy to read and posted in multiple locations so every worker has the opportunity to review it. Additionally, evacuation plans should be posted by exit doors and elevators to remind employees of the proper route in case of an emergency.
  7. Keep it current. Operations and personnel change frequently, and an outdated EAP is of little use in an emergency. Employers should regularly review and update their EAP to ensure its effectiveness.

Erica Johnson is an associate at FordHarrsion.