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Five Necessary Components of a Successful Company-wide Crisis Drill

Emergencies don't discriminate. They can happen to the smallest of companies or the largest of manufacturers. Every organization has the responsibility to be prepared to respond properly to any emergency or crisis that may arise. To safeguard against potential catastrophes, crisis drills are designed to address the immediate situation, return the company to productivity as quickly as possible, and identify areas of improvement to prevent future occurrences.

An effective corporate crisis drill is an opportunity to put into practice all of the elements of a company's environmental, health and safety (EH&S) program—and link them to business processes and corporate priorities.

Most companies perform local emergency drills at individual sites, but it's less common for organizations to practice crisis response at a larger national, or even global, scale. While employee preparation at the plant level in the event of a crisis is key, it's important to prepare managers across the company to involve stakeholders beyond the local plant and to know how to identify and handle crises that can escalate quickly.

A corporate-level crisis, broadly speaking, is a major threat to a company, its personnel, their ability to provide products and services to customers or suppliers, and their reputation. Simulating a chemical or business crisis through an organization-wide drill is the best way to ensure you have a plan in place and that leadership and employees are prepared to take proper action should a crisis of a severe magnitude occur.

The following five elements are essential to elevating your company's or organization's standard emergency response process to a major crisis drill.

1. Plan Ahead
Because a real crisis always happens when least expected, part of what makes a crisis drill so effective is that it is a surprise to the majority of the workforce when it happens. This element of surprise empowers employees to put their crisis preparedness training into practice during a realistic scenario. Therefore, to ensure all parties are able to mobilize appropriately, it's important to define various crisis levels and what they entail ahead of time. Employees will probably not have time to consult the company crisis management handbook during an actual emergency, so providing hard copies of this plan well in advance—and making sure employees are well versed in the practices outlined in the handbook as part of your ongoing training—can mitigate confusion during a drill.

Generally speaking, a well-structured and consistently updated corporate crisis plan should be provided to plant leadership once a year. While it's important to make electronic copies available, we have found that delivering hard copies tends to garner higher readership among employees.

A well-structured crisis plan has multiple components that are integral to its success. First, everyone's roles and responsibilities should be clearly delineated. This includes alternate roles in the event the designated employees are unavailable or unable to perform their assigned duties. The various phases of the crisis management plan also should be clearly explained so that accidents are accurately categorized.

An effective plan should begin with notifying the proper channels of an initial incident so that the situation can be assessed and an appropriate crisis level can be determined. Standard crisis levels might range from one to three; with level one being a local emergency that can be handled by a site's on-duty personnel, to a level three, in which case the crisis poses significant liability, legal, reputational, and financial threats to the entire company, with this highest level requiring the activation of a global crisis team. By choosing to simulate a level-three crisis in a drill, the widest group of departments can be involved, resulting in a well-rounded and robust simulation.

2. Assume the Worst
Once everyone is well versed in the crisis management plan, it's time to put that plan into action. Choose a scenario that has the potential to escalate rapidly and one that threatens not just the safety, health, and welfare of employees and neighbors, but also the welfare of the company itself.

When conceptualizing a level three crisis, consider scenarios that will bring in departments such as investor relations, public relations, customer service, and technical sales. Be creative. Your worst-case scenario might include a worldwide pandemic outburst, or a massive computer virus, or a huge product liability incident.

After a theme for the crisis drill has been decided upon, create a robust scenario with varying levels of complexity to accompany it. Start the incident with an emergency that starts out small and then escalates to the company as a whole. For example, a shipping container full of plastic pellets capsized by a typhoon at a Hong Kong distribution center could result in widespread coastline damage, reputational harm, and potential cleanup liability. An explosion at your company's most important manufacturing location could cause fatalities and environmental liability, but also it could cripple business and cause the company to miss shipments to customers for an extended timeframe.

Design a wide-ranging scenario that ensures that several cross-functional teams within the company are engaged in the drill and all affected personnel are aware of the potential risks involved in their line of work and equipped to handle a disaster should the unimaginable happen.

3. Be Realistic
Once a robust scenario has been conceptualized, build out your idea with detail to add an element of realism. An explosion or loss of containment would undoubtedly attract significant media attention, so to simulate the quick, viral nature of a catastrophic event, consider creating mock-up news stories with harsh headlines, as well as simulated social media posts such as tweets and viral videos.

Be sure to incorporate legal, financial, and public relations teams in the crisis drill—not just the EH&S department and chemical plant leaders—so that all branches are equipped to handle a company’s reputation stemming from a chemical crisis.

Depending on the severity of the crisis, companies may be required to file with financial authorities, such as an Form 8-K with the SEC to announce material events deemed worthy of stakeholder attention. Such disclosures might be accompanied by a news release and other communications to investors and the company’s board of directors. These elements allow your drill participants to consider how the crisis could have an effect on stock prices.

Include line management of the businesses, if possible, because in a major crisis, a company's entire supply chain could also be affected. When a company is unable to produce or ship a product for a period of time, there could be a direct impact on customers. Customers that rely on inventory consistency may be forced to close if a catastrophic event prohibits them from receiving product. Because of this, logistics personnel also should be involved in a crisis drill to assess potential workarounds, such as producing or shipping from another facility or enlisting third-party vendors to temporarily transport goods or materials until the crisis is contained.

4. Enlist Your Leadership
Executive-level involvement is crucial in bringing a drill to fruition. Beyond EH&S leadership, public affairs, legal, financial, and logistics involvement emphasizes collaboration when it comes time to mitigate a crisis. Further, when the CEO is personally invested in a crisis drill, it shows all levels of the organization that emergency response preparedness is a top priority.

The first 24 to 48 hours of managing a crisis are critical to protecting your workers and the community, as well as your brand and business operations. Involving every level of the organization, from the CEO down to the front-line engineer, in a drill ensures all parties are invested in the program.

5. Evaluate Your Success
In order to fully maximize their efficacy, evaluate your drills for valuable feedback and to identify areas of improvement. Holding a debriefing session immediately after a crisis drill is imperative. An honest and thorough assessment should be conducted with all parties involved in the drill to identify learnings in various areas, such as roles, actions, internal and external communications, overall crisis management, and the tools available in order to close any gaps, and mitigate the effects of an actual emergency.

A crisis drill and the resulting evaluation can yield valuable insight, such as the need for additional training, coaching, or staffing in certain areas to meet or exceed the requirements necessary for safe practice. Ideally, organizations should conduct crisis drills annually to test a variety of scenarios and gather useful data on emergency preparedness processes from year to year, and to inform any updates to the crisis management handbook.

Drills of significant magnitude provide employees with the opportunity to practice their crisis management skills, and they bring everyone together with the common goal of mitigating a disaster's effects. Enlisting CEO and executive-level leadership and enacting a robust and all-encompassing global crisis drill on annual basis helps develop a culture of safety and empowerment among employees. These drills teach valuable lessons in what the catastrophic effects can be when basic safety processes are overlooked or an accident occurs. They are a reminder that every employee is responsible for safeguarding employees, the community, and the environment in their daily work.

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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