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Workplace Disasters: Ready?

When we think of disasters and the workplace, its usually in the context of a natural disater such as tornadoes, hurricanes or earthquakes- depending on where one is located. But these are actually the tip of the iceberg- which is a good analogy in fact. The iceberg that was struck by the Titanic would not be considered a “natural disaster” in the same way as a hurricane, but it was no less a disaster for the Titanic.

Because of the belief that the ship was unsinkable, less attention was given to preparing for such an event. Any instructions on how to abandon ship, don life vests, etc., were given tongue in cheek, if at all. Design and other interests were given precedence over providing sufficient life boats, primarily due to management perception that “it can’t happen here.”

When an emergency strikes your workplace, there’s no time for hesitation-or for trying to figure out what to do. To survive an emergency, you and your workforce have to already know what to do. Emergency plans must be well developed, well practiced, and ready to be put into action at a moment’s notice.

Emergency planning and response is one of the most important aspects of safety management-keeping employees safe no matter what. It is also a crucial element of business continuity planning, and those responsible for creating policy and procedures for both aspects must work together to create an effective overall plan.

Types of Emergencies

  • Fires are the most common type of workplace emergency. The National Fire Protection Association reports that a fire department somewhere in America responds to a fire every 23 seconds. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that fires cause as many as 10,000 employee injuries and 200 employee deaths every year. In addition, the United States Fire Administration says that property losses due to industrial fires cost U.S. businesses more than $4 billion a year in property losses and more than $8 billion in business interruption costs.
  • Explosions resulting from fires, chemical reactions, combustible dust, or other causes can claim many lives, leave many more badly injured, and destroy property.
  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes can strike with little or no warning. Hurricanes and floods may be forecast, but effective emergency action in these situations may nevertheless be required.
  • Toxic chemical releases can require emergency response within the workplace and in the surrounding community.
  • Workplace violence can erupt at any time in any department. Supervisors, managers, and employees must be prepared to respond quickly and appropriately in these dangerous and sometime life-threatening situations.
  • Terrorism, especially since 9/11, has become yet another disaster to add to your list.

Some may look at that list, nodding at some, shaking their head at others. “No chance of this, or that, happening here.” Granted, but what about down the street? Consider your neighbors when creating response plans. Your office might not be at direct risk for an explosion or chemical release, for example, but the chemical plant a mile away doesn’t have that same assurance. An accidental (or deliberate) release or explosion there could easily impact your business and your employees. The explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, in April 2013 flattened a significant area surrounding the facility, and in the words of a local police sergeant. “part of that community is gone.

Planning Advice

To prepare for all potential threats, you need a sensible planning strategy.

According to Cal/OSHA– “Often, businesses don’t prepare for a disaster, not because they don’t want to but because they think it will involve a resource-intense project, something many small- and medium-sized businesses can ill afford. While disaster preparedness can turn into a multi-headed monster if not properly managed, disaster preparedness doesn’t have to be that way.”

To avoid this “multi-headed monster,” you should:

  • Determine a comfortable degree of preparedness. “There are degrees of preparedness,” says Cal/OSHA. “The bare minimum is that, in a disaster, you can safely evacuate your workers; any processes that could harm workers, the environment, or the public can be secured; and the rest you leave up to whatever outside services may be available. On the other end of the spectrum, you can have all the equipment and supplies to do full disaster response on your own with minimal assistance from outside services.” Each business must decide the level of preparedness that works best for them. Businesses with multiple locations might consider temporary transfer of personnel and/or critical operations to another facility to ensure business continuity.
  • Develop a disaster preparedness checklist. The checklist should include all aspects of emergency response and will help ensure that you anticipate all essential details.
  • Evaluate the “what ifs.” Walk around with your checklist and try to imagine how different emergencies could actually impact your workers and your operations.
  • Build your plan step-by-step. Don’t wait until you have all the “i’s” dotted and all the “t’s” crossed. Build your plan piece by piece until you have a comprehensive disaster plan you can live with.
  • Document policies and procedures. Write up all emergency policies and procedures and make them available to supervisors and employees.
  • Keep your plans up to date. Review your plan annually and revise as necessary when circumstances, hazards, etc., change.
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  1. June 27, 2013 at 6:34 AM

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