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Are Your Employees Prepared for a Workplace Medical Emergency?

A group of people sitting around an ecg dummy.

What would you do if an employee had a medical emergency on the job? The American Heart Association (AHA) says most employees aren't prepared to handle life-threatening health issues—like sudden cardiac arrest—in the workplace. That's why the AHA just launched a workplace safety training initiative focused on first aid, CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) use.

An AED is a portable device that delivers an electric shock through the chest to the heart, which can return the heart to a normal rhythm after a sudden cardiac arrest.

Jim Holland, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Kansas City, Mo., knows how important it is to train staff on first aid, CPR and AED use.

In January 2015, Holland's wife, Nancy, went into sudden cardiac arrest while they were at a restaurant having dinner with friends.

The restaurant's manager, Richmond Carson, had learned CPR because his mother is a nurse and she suggested that it would be an important skill for him to have while working in a public-facing position.

Carson administered CPR to Nancy until the first emergency responder arrived with an AED.

The restaurant didn't have an AED on hand, but the first responder was a police officer who carried one in the car, Holland told SHRM Online.

The combination of CPR and AED use saved Nancy's life. Although there was initially some uncertainty about whether she would suffer permanent brain damage after the incident, she did not. Holland joked that when Nancy recovered, the only thing she had forgotten was her cellphone passcode.

Holland said that although the 911 responders arrived very quickly, if Carson hadn't known CPR, chances are that Nancy wouldn't have survived. Likewise, the availability and quick use of the AED were critical.

Creating Awareness

More than 90 percent of employees who participated in two 2017 AHA surveys said they would take employer-sponsored first aid and CPR training courses—but many employers don't provide such training, according to the surveys.

Employees may have a false sense of security that someone else in the organization will know what to do and is qualified to respond to an emergency situation, said Michael Kurz, a physician scientist at the Alabama Resuscitation Center and a professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in the Department of Emergency Medicine.

It is disheartening that lifesaving training is often only offered after a serious incident that demonstrated a need for it, said Peter Fromm, a registered nurse and administrator at the South Nassau Communities Hospital Center for Cardiovascular Health in Oceanside, N.Y.

"All businesses should be committed to proactively fostering a safe workplace environment, one that empowers people to take on a small social responsibility that can have a large community impact," he said.

Reasons to Consider Providing Training

For many industries, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends CPR and AED training as a best practice but doesn't require it, although some businesses that expose workers to specific safety hazards are required to offer such training.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Determine Regulatory Requirements for Safety]

Even if not required, the AHA says, employers should offer first aid, CPR and AED training because it can save lives. An employee only has a 5 percent to 7 percent chance of surviving cardiac arrest while waiting for the arrival of emergency medical services. Employees who receive immediate defibrillation, however, have up to a 60 percent survival rate one year after cardiac arrest, the organization says.

Therefore, it is important to inform workers about the location of these devices in the workplace and to train employees on how to use them.

After the 2015 incident, Holland and his wife decided to focus on creating awareness about CPR and AED training.

Holland wondered what would happen if someone suffered sudden cardiac arrest in a Fisher Phillips office or at a client's worksite. He wanted to make sure his co-workers and clients were prepared.

He started the "Richmond initiative"—named after the restaurant manager who saved Nancy's life—through which Fisher Phillips purchased AEDs for its 32 offices.

Holland noted that some offices, depending on their size and layout, should have two AEDs so that one is always within reach during an emergency.

He said everyone in the office should know where the nearest AED is located.

It should be in a conspicuous place, like hanging on a wall, rather than in an HR manager's office drawer, he added. That way, anyone can access it.

The law firm also offered CPR training to all of its employees. "You can have someone come into the office to do CPR and AED training so that if something comes up, you're prepared for it," Holland said.

He recommends training everyone in the office on CPR. If that's not possible, "it's a good idea to notify workers about who is CPR-certified," he said. But even people who are not CPR-certified can at least start pounding on someone's chest in an emergency, he added, noting that hands-only CPR is now taught, which is administered by pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest, rather than also giving mouth-to-mouth breaths.

People might be afraid of hurting someone and facing legal liability, but most states have good Samaritan laws that will protect them when assisting someone in an emergency.

"Had Richmond not seen the value in being trained, I might not have survived," Nancy said in a press statement. "I can't stress enough how important and empowering these trainings and the availability of AEDs are for people."

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