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Keeping Up-to-Date for Emergencies

When was the last time you updated your emergency action plan? Be prepared to respond to emerging threats.

Rolling blackouts. Economic downturns. You never know when disaster will strike or what form it will take, and you never know when your emergency action plan (EAP) will be needed. So when was the last time you updated your EAP?

Before you turn to another story, confident that your emergency action plan has you well-prepared for any eventuality, take this short test. If you lose some of your confidence after answering these five questions, then you better read on.

1. Has anyone with key responsibilities in an emergency -- a safety manager, a security guard, a shift supervisor, a plant fireman -- left your company or switched jobs in the past year?

2. Have you expanded, renovated or reconfigured your plant or office in the past year, changing evacuation routes?

3. Are you using new processes or manufacturing and assembly techniques that pose new risks?

4. Are there new regulations that apply to you, like those that require organizations to provide public access defibrillation or develop a plan for workplace violence?

5. Do your contractors, temporary employees and new hires know what to do in an emergency?

Best practices in disaster planning -- and, in many cases, federal regulations -- call for a written emergency action plan that is reviewed and updated annually. In fact, no less than five government agencies require companies to have up-to-date EAPs. The broadest-reaching requirements are those of OSHA, which mandates that all companies with 10 or more employees have a written plan and train new hires in accordance with the plan. Depending upon your business, other agencies that may require emergency plans include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.

EAPs have three key elements: risk assessment, response and business resumption. Planning is embedded in each of these elements. Your EAP begins with an understanding of what the risks are, then you plan to deal with the risks and the aftermath. With so many government agencies and regulations to monitor, little time and few resources, however, the focus of many companies turns solely to compliance. While this may lead to good response planning, it often falls short in risk assessment and business resumption planning.

A risk assessment is equal parts forecasting and disaster prevention. What are the threats inside and outside your facility, and what are the prudent things to do to deal with those threats and prevent them from occurring?

You probably are well-prepared to respond to an emergency involving an onsite chemical spill or a fire because these are regulated issues, and OSHA or the local fire department requires that you have a plan in place. But are you prepared to respond to emerging threats and new regulations? Do you have a plan for battling computer viruses -- not one that a programmer can debug in an hour, but a complex virus that shuts down your computers and Internet communications for days? Do you have a plan for battling a real virus or highly contagious bacteria or virus that strikes your work force? Earlier this year, a Ford Motor assembly plant in Ohio closed for days because of an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease. Have you planned for the damage that can result from conscious actions by a disgruntled employee, whether it be damage to vital data or the threat of workplace violence?

Planning for new threats creates new complexities and, because these disasters are rare, few companies have experience responding to them. The response procedures may be quite different from your response to an emergency that has been regulated for many years, like a fire or a chemical spill. Different personnel with new responsibilities may be involved in your response to emerging threats, and legal issues and liability also may factor into the equation.

Determining all the necessary elements of a risk assessment -- whether to address workplace violence, bad publicity, product recalls or jury awards in lawsuits that can break the bank -- can be more complex than an organization can adequately handle. If you do not have the resources to conduct an effective risk assessment internally, turn to outside experts. The benefits of having a certified industrial hygienist evaluate environmental issues, a certified safety professional assess the safety of a chemical process and a public relations professional develop a crisis communications plan to protect your image can far outweigh the costs.

When an emergency happens, what you do immediately and what you do for the next 24 hours is what defines your response, and it will affect your company's ability to recover from the emergency. It is not only how you stop the chemicals from spilling, for example, but how you contain the spill and prevent it from migrating off your property, and whether you have to shut down for an extended time.

Get Back into Business

Nearly half of all companies or plants that experience a serious loss never reopen. Because management did not fully assess the level of risk, they did not know what to do when disaster struck.

Consider how a few years' time can affect your emergency action plan when you do not keep it up-to-date. A decade ago, your business resumption plan to meet product delivery commitments after a disaster may have been to shift production to another plant and supplement it with inventory in a warehouse. Now you manufacture and deliver product "just in time." Like other companies competing in a global economy, you have kept costs down by eliminating excess capacity, manpower and inventory.

If a natural disaster such as a tornado strikes your community, you could suffer damage to your plant, loss of power for an extended period of time and a disruption in transportation systems. With no extra inventory in a warehouse and no other plants with the capacity to make your products, this disaster could prevent your company from fulfilling obligations. The result could be long-term loss of sales and market share, which would have a far more devastating impact on your business than did the tornado.

Your business resumption plan has to take into account products in the pipeline and look at how quickly you can restart a damaged manufacturing facility. Your goals are to shrink losses, reduce downtime and keep customers satisfied. It is quite difficult to find a quick fix for a plant loss without advance planning. Prepare for emergencies so that you can continue to function and deliver products and services to customers and meet commitments. The lack of a thoroughly developed EAP can have life-and-death consequences for a company.

If you do not have the internal resources to stay up-to-date with your risk assessment, response plan and business resumption plan, turn for help to a single-source provider with expertise in consulting, managing and implementing EAPs. Certified professionals in safety management, industrial hygiene, fire protection, ergonomics and training can provide a broader view of your risks, plus their professional insights and experiences at other companies can help improve your response and business resumption plans. They also can provide facility-specific training and regulatory expertise to ensure your complete compliance with all legal, training and data management requirements.

Though your budget for outside experts may be as limited as your time and internal resources, the money you spend often can be recovered in several ways. There will be savings in manpower and internal resources, insurance companies will reward a well-protected facility and a good business resumption plan with lower insurance costs, and your company will be positioned to keep downtime to a minimum if a disaster strikes.

Remember, the frequency of disasters and emergencies may be low, but the severity of an occurrence can be very high. An unplanned event can put your company out of business. Protect your company by keeping up-to-date on your risks, having a plan for responding to those potential disasters and knowing how you will meet your commitments afterward.

Fred Muldoon is vice president, Consulting and Professional Services, for Complient Corp. Complient is an experienced, nationwide, single-source provider of environmental, health and safety programs that meet corporate and industrial compliance needs. Complient provides one-stop shopping for emergency action plan consulting, implementation and management. Through consistent, enterprisewide consulting and training services, program implementation and tracking tools, Complient helps control the risks that can adversely affect business.

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