What to Do If an Earthquake Hits Your Office


(Pictured: Workers in downtown Washington, D.C. evacuate buildings after being struck by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, centered in a small Virginia town. Photo courtesy of staceyhuggins on Flickr).

When a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook up the East Coast from Georgia to New England in the middle of the afternoon, many people were bewildered about what to do next.

After all, the eastern side of the country isn’t known for getting a lot of earthquakes. Hurricanes? Yes. Tornadoes? Yes. Blizzards? Definitely. But earthquakes are assumed to be more of a West Coast phenomena.

But experts interviewed by Popular Mechanic last week said that while the East Coast doesn’t have as many earthquakes as the West, they are still hit from time to time, and those strikes can be pretty significant. An 1886 quake that rattled Charleston, S.C. was somewhere between 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter Scale.

Since earthquakes are so infrequent on the East Coast, most people were unsure about the safety precautions they were supposed to take when this last one hit. The quake happened in the middle of the work day, so there have since been plenty of questions about what to do if the ground shook again. Should you stay indoors or go out? Are elevators safe? What part of the building offers the most protection? Should you stay in your cubicle?

We checked in with the disaster authority itself to get answers to these questions.

To Prepare for an Earthquake

Even if you don’t live in an area of the country that is prone to earthquakes, it’s still a good idea to have an emergency kit ready for any time disaster may strike. Your office probably already has a fire extinguisher and first aid kit. Make sure you know where in the building those are. In addition, you can help yourself by stowing a flashlight, portable radio, batteries, a whistle, food and water at your desk. If you notice furniture that is not secure, mention it to your HR representative. Bookshelves and file cabinets should be secured to the wall to reduce the risk of them toppling over during an earthquake. Office equipment is potentially hazardous, too. If you’re in an earthquake prone area, consider securing these items to a wall or desk using velcro.

If you’re concerned about emergency preparedness in your office, contact your HR representative and ask them if your office has a system in place for dealing with emergency situations (evacuation plans, point people, emergency supply kit, etc.). If their answer is no, it might be time for you to take the lead in organizing what employees should do in the case of an emergency. Appoint team leaders who can do role call after an emergency to make sure everyone is accounted for. Hold disaster drills periodically so that everyone is aware of where they should go in the event of an emergency.

If an Earthquake Strikes

Here’s what you should do to protect yourself, according to Dwayne Johnson and FEMA:

Stay where you are. You are more likely to be injured if you move to a different location in your building or if you go outside. The most dangerous part of a building during an earthquake is just inside or just outside, where you’re more at risk to be injured from windows and falling debris.

Get low. Drop to the ground and seek cover under a sturdy table or desk and hold on until the shaking stops. If there is nothing nearby to hide under, crouch in an inside corner of the building, using your arms to cover your face and head.

Avoid objects that could fall. Don’t seek shelter near exterior walls, doors or windows. Stay away from anything that call fall, such as light fixtures, unstable furniture, hanging artwork, potted plants or office equipment.

Use load-bearing doorways. Only use a doorway for shelter if you know it is a strongly-supported, load-bearing doorway. Otherwise, seek a sturdy table or desk.

Don’t use the elevator. Even if the elevator is still working after the initial earthquake, don’t use it. There could still be aftershocks that could potentially be stronger than the initial quake.

Be aware. Don’t be alarmed if the electricity goes off or the sprinkler system comes on during an earthquake.

If you become trapped under debris, FEMA advises the following:

  • Do not light a match
  • Do not move about or kick up dust
  • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing
  • Tap on a pipe or wall to help rescuers locate you.
  • Use a whistle if one is available.
  • Shout only if you have no other options for making noise. Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.