Not If, But When

Nov. 5, 2001
Emergency response experts urge companies to get prepared for disaster.

We as safety directors are responsible for the folks at our facilities, whether it be an office building, food plant or car manufacturing plant. We're risk managers; we're not just technicians. We need to look at all the risks," advises Michael J. Fagel, Ph.D.

While the long list of potential risks that companies and their employees face has not grown, the concern that those hazards could strike the average business has never been greater. The terrorist plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the anthrax infections of workers at government, news and postal facilities, have been grim reminders that we live in an uncertain, often perilous, world. Many employers are shoring up their personnel and physical security measures, and reviewing their ability to cope with natural or manmade emergencies.

Few people appreciate the impact of catastrophic emergencies in this country better than Fagel, an Illinois safety professional and emergency manager who has responded to the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center attacks. Fagel, who spoke to Occupational Hazards while on assignment from the Justice Department to provide support to the New York City fire department, described the blocks of destruction at the World Trade Center site as "awesome" and "mindnumbing."

In Fagel's view, companies must be prepared for any eventuality. "One of my tenets in disaster management has always been planning, preparation and practice," he said.

While those tenets are universally preached by emergency management experts, they readily acknowledge that not all companies follow them.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, we find that the emergency response organization is not current. The organization at some point has made an effort to put together an emergency response plan, but they have failed to maintain that response via training and updating," observed Mike Morganti, MBCP, manager of customized training for FM Global, the commercial and industrial property insurance firm. Morganti recalled asking to speak to members of the emergency response roster, only to be told that "they were dead or had retired or had transferred."

To solve this problem, Morganti urges companies to post the emergency response roster on the employee bulletin board. That lets everyone know who is on the list and what their responsibilities are, and makes it easy to spot out-of-date assignments.

Cast a Wide Net

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines an emergency as "any unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries to employees, customers or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility's financial standing or public image." Emergencies can include fires, hazardous materials incidents, hurricanes, tornados, winter storms, earthquakes, as well as biological, chemical or even nuclear terrorism.

In putting together an emergency management plan, FEMA recommends that organizations form a planning team with broad representation from various company functions and levels. That team is then charged with assessing the possible hazards that the company or facility faces and its capabilities for handling such events.

"When people ask me what they should plan for, my answer is generally to plan for the total destruction or unavailability of the site," Morganti said. "You don't have any of the equipment, any of the information or access to the facility. How does your business survive? That is the fundamental premise of a business continuity plan."

Terrorist acts in New York and Washington demonstrate the need to broaden our concepts of workplace hazards, said Ber-nard Silverstein, CIH, project manager, industrial hygiene for The Sapphire Group. For example, companies should consider not only terrorism involving airplanes or bioterrorism, but chemical or radioactive threats. Silverstein noted that in most emergency planning, company officials want to look at the hazards they have experience with and move on. "What this has taught us is we have to think outside the box. We have to look not at our experience with hazards, but at our vulnerabilities initially and then move on from there," he said.

Once the plan is developed, FEMA notes, it must be integrated into company operations, employees must be trained, and the plan must be periodically evaluated and updated. Training activities can include general education sessions, tabletop exercises for the emergency management group, walk-through drills for the emergency management group and response teams, functional drills dealing with activities such as medical response or communications procedures, evacuation drills and full-scale exercises in which a simulated emergency situation is held.

In situations where the re-evaluation of emergency threats calls for new safety procedures, such as the use of personal protective equipment by employees handling mail, training and communication becomes vital. "As with any kind of safety practice, it is only as effective as you communicate it to your employees and as they are willing to take the steps necessary to protect themselves from those new dangers," said Ed Emerick, senior safety consulting manager for J.J. Keller & Associates, a safety training and consulting firm.

The factor that is difficult to create or replicate even in elaborate drills is the panic and anxiety that accompanies an emergency, noted Jonathan Kipp, CSP, the loss prevention manager for the New Hampshire Public Risk Management Exchange and co-author of Emergency Incident Risk Management (John Wiley & Sons). "You do a fire drill on a sunny day, it's kind of a game with folks," he said. Even seemingly simple tasks such as proceeding to the emergency stairs in a building and exiting, however, can be difficult in a dark, smoky, life-threatening situation. "In their home in those conditions, they would have difficulty finding their staircase that they have used thousands of times," he said. "Put them in a workplace where they have typically gone to the elevator and they are in an unfamiliar setting, and it is going to be extremely difficult."

Because terrorism is frightening and the country's nerves are still raw from recent attacks, experts warn not to neglect the emotional component of risk management. "For a Sears tower worker, the risk of dying in a terrorist attack is far less than the risk of dying in a car accident. Nevertheless, people do not react to risk based on actuarial tables," wrote David Creelman and Bob Delaney in "Disaster Recovery: HR's Responsibilities" on Web site "We can only suggest that HR managers, in these circumstances, chat with employees over the coming weeks to get a sense if ongoing fear is going to be a problem for the organization and try to instill a realistic view of the risk."

Having at least one person in a company to champion emergency preparedness is vital, Silverstein said. "You can look back and historically find that there is going to be a period of perhaps one to three years where companies will actively get involved, develop and implement action plans or new procedures for this terrorism. If there are not other terrorist acts, they will lose focus."

This champion must have the authority, responsibility and accountability from senior management to keep emergency preparedness a vital issue. Because an issue such as terrorism engenders a considerable amount of stress, Silverstein said, the trick is to "keep people motivated without keeping them stressed."

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