by Lawrence H. "Chip" Dawson
The events of Sept. 11 and the ongoing threat of bioterrorism in American workplaces have many people living and working in fear. Unquestionably, the world has changed, and few of us are happy with the direction. It's important to put everything in perspective, however, and consider the proper role of the employer.
First, understand that the risk to any individual employee from bioterrorism is extremely low. It's been said by one commentator that you have a better chance of winning the lottery. Roosevelt and many before him advised that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But statistics and words of past leaders may be of little comfort in the steady media bombardment about threats, warnings and real victims.
Dealing with terrorism is largely a government function. Finding and stopping the source of the threat, conducting investigations and responding to incidents properly and appropriately falls to authorities at various levels. In most communities in the nation, law enforcement, emergency services, the medical community and the emergency preparedness agency have planned, trained and drilled to reach an impressive level of expertise. As new threats surface, they are on a steep learning curve to stay ahead of the threat.
For the most current information on bioterrorism, go to www.bt.cdc.gov .
So what is the role of the employer? It's very simple: to make every employee feel safe and comfortable while at work. It's the same role the employer had before Sept. 11, and the tools to make it happen are largely known and tested. Here they are:
Run a safe and caring operation. Have a process to manage safety, control hazards, address issues immediately and drive incidents to zero. Put the welfare of your employees first, before profits and production, and you'll find that they take care of those things for you. Earn a reputation as a great place to work; it feels great and is a wonderful marketing tool, as well.
Listen. Take employee concerns seriously. Deal with their fears. Use your employee assistance plan staff or professional counseling help for those who need it.
Train. Knowledge helps us understand and deal with the things we face. Americans by the millions are tuned to the broadcast media, devouring newspapers or searching the Internet, but those sources do not address your company and your view of the world. Teach the mailroom staff the fundamentals of mail screening. Make sure employees know about site safety and how to address problems while still small. Cover the basics of workplace violence. Bring in experts to host a lunch-hour question-and-answer forum.
Communicate. Tell your people what the company knows. Be open and candid, share plans and options, and address rumors immediately. Call local authorities to verify stories, and let everyone know the answer. Check regularly on www.snopes.com or www.urbanlegends.com for help in sorting reality from fiction.
Know your people. Consider background checks for all employees. Be aware of those with personal problems, and address any inconsistencies immediately. Be able to tell when someone is "down" or troubled, and find a way to help.
Empower people. Let them make their own decisions about their safety (once you've given them the knowledge, skills and resources they need to take the proper actions). Allow them to back away from a situation that makes them uncomfortable. Be flexible about demands on their time that impact family and personal life. If the events of September and October have taught us anything, it is probably that life is precious and way too short. Skip the standing late-afternoon meeting and let your folks get to their children's soccer game or school play.
Harden the site against external threats. Do what you can to keep problems (domestic violence, crime, hazardous exposures, etc.) in the rest of the world from entering your workplace. Consider these concepts from Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED):
- Limit access to the property and to the facility with effective access control. Consider options such as card access systems, badges, fencing and substantial doors. Make every one of your people part of the site security staff so the physical system has thinking people behind it.
- Remove or move barriers to clear visibility all around the facility. Consider removing landscaping that may be overgrown or neglected, climbing weeds on fences, old storage containers or unused small buildings. Having grounds that are open and cleanly landscaped not only makes them attractive, but it tells people who pass by that you care about the working environment.
- Have (and closely enforce) parking and delivery regulations. Keep vehicles away from the building (100 feet is recommended for normal threats). After all, a short walk is good for health and security. Identify vehicles approaching your loading dock or parked at the front entrance.
- Have good visibility at all entrances to the facility and have staff in a position to pre-screen visitors safely from a distance. This gives you time to secure a door or retreat to safety if someone approaching presents an obvious threat.
- Keep all nonstaffed entrances locked and alarmed (but with safe emergency egress). This is another area where all your people need to be supportive and aware. Propping a door open for ventilation or easy access leaves the facility very vulnerable.
- Have air intakes and other utilities inaccessible to all but designated maintenance personnel. Air intakes should generally be in the bottom one-third of the building wall but high enough to be clear of ground-level natural and intentional contamination.
- Prevent access to roofs and upper stories by locking rooftop doors and controlling emergency escape routes.
- Maintain good lighting levels around the building perimeter (average 1 foot candle or more).
- Keep the grounds free of obstructions, trash, debris, containers and long-term vehicle storage. Keep trash compactors and containers secured inside the building wall or at a distance from the building.
- Insist that all employees and visitors be properly badged, and task all employees to challenge anyone not authorized.
- Have a system to screen all incoming mail and goods.
- For more information on CPTED, go to the Virginia Tech Safer Places Web site, www.arch.vt.edu/crimeprev/pages/home.html .
Have an emergency plan. If things do go wrong, make sure that every resource you have to deal with the problem is efficiently and effectively brought to bear.
Exercise the emergency plan. Let people see that the company and they can get through the problem if it is humanly possible to do so.
These are just a few of the many things you can consider to make your organization a safe haven for your people. Many of the country's larger companies have been doing these things routinely, long before recent events heightened our sense of vulnerability. Rather than doing new things, they have simply reinforced what they already know works.
About the author: Lawrence H. "Chip" Dawson is a safety management consultant in Rochester, N.Y. He manages health, safety and environmental training and consulting for the Industrial Management Council of Rochester. Retired from Eastman Kodak, where he was director of industrial safety and site emergency coordinator at Kodak's primary plant, Dawson holds a B.A. from Oklahoma State University and did graduate work in management at the University of Illinois. He was a founding member and past chair of the Monroe County LEPC. He is a commander, USNR (retired) and a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers.