Disaster Roles and Responsibilities for Safety Managers

Most safety professionals are pressed to focus on everyday issues and surprises. They have limited time to develop emergency preparedness plans.

IN the wake of a most devastating 2005 hurricane season with deadly storms named Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, many safety managers will undoubtedly find top management asking tough questions: "What are our risks and threats to customers, employees, operations and property? What type of enhancements to plant safety and emergency planning and response are justified?"

Just reflect upon some of the more memorable disasters during the past 10 to 15 years: Los Angeles riots, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the great Midwest floods in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the World Trade Center in 2001, numerous tornado outbreaks, blizzards, droughts, wildfires, and now Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Public officials regularly caution Americans that it is not a question of "if" terrorists will attack the United States again, but a question of "when, where, and how"! The recent disasters, coupled with a real possibility of terrorist attacks and disasters, have many in the business community asking, "Are we ready?" Because public emergency management agencies and officials are almost exclusively focusing on their own responsibilities and funding challenges, occupational health and safety officials will find the responsibility belongs to them exclusively or perhaps is delegated to a committee or human resources department.

Unfortunately, training in emergency preparedness is minimal at best, even in ABET-accredited university safety programs. Most safety professionals are pressed to focus their attention and efforts on the everyday issues and surprises, such as accident prevention and investigations, legal compliance, and a growing role in environmental compliance and employee health. The consequence for managing such a schedule is a limitation to research, evaluate, and develop emergency preparedness for a disaster event.

Fortunately, the process of disaster emergency preparedness is similar and familiar to safety management. Just as in safety planning, the devil in emergency planning is in the details. Just like safety, emergency preparedness is a diverse field. However, the similar roles provide safety professionals with the skill sets to take on the emergency management responsibilities within the organization and begin moving the organization forward to a greater level of preparedness and response capabilities.

Getting Started
One of the first things to understand about emergency preparedness is that, just like safety, it is an incredibly diverse field. When initially entering occupational health and safety, the inexperienced practitioner will view safety as homogeneous. Yet safety for a construction company is different than for a manufacturing firm. Safety in regard to accident prevention, and the heavy human contact it involves, is different than occupational health and the scientific background required of hygienists.

While one might correctly point out that safety management professionals and hygienists are not the same, the average person would not know enough about the disciplines to understand that. Emergency management is the same way. For example, what type of emergency is being prepared for? Is the emergency a hurricane or a chemical spill in a major metropolitan area? Is the emergency a riot in a congested city or a tornado striking a 300-person manufacturing plant in rural America? Is the disaster an earthquake in San Francisco or in the boot heel of Missouri?

Disasters can be broken down into three distinct categories: natural, man-made, and malicious. By far the most common disaster categories are natural disasters, which are responsible for the greatest number of deaths and economic damage. This category of disasters has been around since the beginning and includes hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, blizzards, droughts, flooding, and every other headache the forces of nature can create.

The second disaster category is man-made events, including hazardous materials incidents, nuclear events, riots, intentional software and computer issues, fires, mine disasters, building collapses, and transportation crashes, to name just a few illustrations of man-made disasters. These types of events are much more familiar to safety professionals. Preventing and mitigating them would be an element of their job descriptions.

The final disaster category is malicious: deliberate efforts to cause destruction, death, injury, and chaos. These attacks could be conventional, such as the high explosives used in the Oklahoma City bombing, or could include nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. While nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks within the United States might seem unlikely, the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas release is a warning that these types of unconventional attacks are possible.

Consider a 1984 biological attack in Oregon. Some 751 patrons eating from salad bars in 10 restaurants in The Dalles, Ore., became ill with salmonella gastroenteritis. There were two distinct outbreak periods: Sept. 9 through Sept. 18 and Sept. 19 through Oct. 10. The subsequent investigation revealed members of a religious commune had deliberately contaminated the salad bars with salmonella. (One source for information on this event is the May 2003 Emerging Infectious Diseases article "Planning against Biological Terrorism: Lessons from Outbreak Investigations," which is available online at www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol9no5/02-0388.htm.)

It is important to note that some disasters can fall into two categories. A dam break, for example, would be a man-made disaster if accidental and possibly considered an attack if done intentionally by a terrorist group. Also, as evidenced by Katrina, disasters often are multi-pronged, meaning some part of the disaster belongs in one category, such as the hurricane itself, while the chemically contaminated floodwaters and looting fit into another category. In short, lumping all emergency management into one broad tent is as inaccurate as putting all safety functions into one small category.

Resources and Training Opportunities
Keeping in mind the three types of disasters, the first question the safety professional suddenly turned emergency management coordinator must ask is, "What type of disaster should we be prepared for?" Fortunately, there are extensive resources available. Best of all, many of these resources are free to both individuals and companies.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has national responsibility for disasters with the assistance of other agencies with roles over their particular disciplines. An example is the Department of Homeland Security, to which FEMA reports. The National Guard has disaster response as a primary mission. Of course, there are state and local agencies with responsibility for various aspects of emergency management. Many of these organizations, FEMA (www.fema.gov), and the state counterpart that exists in every state in the union have resources regarding what types of disasters are most likely in your area.

FEMA's online library (www.fema.gov/library/dizandemer.shtm) has detailed information regarding every disaster in recent history. FEMA also offers training courses (www.training.fema.gov/) and links to other, affiliated organizations, such as the National Fire Academy, that offer training on various general and specific aspects of disaster preparedness. Training topics range from free independent study courses to links for universities offering emergency management degrees. Although varying from state to state, state-run offices of civil defense and emergency management offer both information and training. While a safety professional might not know much about disaster preparedness, the resources are readily available for anyone willing to learn.

Stages of Emergency Preparedness
Emergency preparedness process is a simple, four-step process. The first step involves mitigation, or trying to eliminate or reduce the hazard. Terms familiar to those in the safety and risk management field, such as frequency and probability, are key concepts for this stage. Examples of mitigation might include software upgrades for computer systems to enhance their resistance to viruses or installing an access-control system to restrict entry to sensitive areas.

The second stage is preparedness. After mitigation has occurred, after the decisions have been made about which disasters to prepare for, the company should try to prepare for those identified disasters. Just as in safety, resources are limited. Examples might include creating a plant fire brigade or chemical spill response team. These members would be provided training and equipment critical for the initial first few minutes of an event. Such preparedness efforts generally involve some important planning and financial decisions and include benchmarks and timelines for activation. Additionally, stockpiling critical supplies and resources would be an important preparedness step. While just-in-time inventory saves money and inventory expenses, it can also pose serious challenges if the supply cycle is interrupted--as was seen with the recent Gulf storms.

The third phase is response. As the name implies, this is actually responding to the incident. It is at this point when things will get worse, as "D-Day" has arrived and things only go downhill unless mitigation and preparedness programs have been researched and implemented. It was the situation unprepared Katrina survivors faced when they did not have food, water, medications, etc. and there was no organized local, state, or federal assistance for almost a week.

What disaster is your company most likely to face? If it were to occur before you concluded reading this article, what would be the items your company would be least able to do without? How critical are certain employees to protecting and restoring operations? What steps have you taken to ensure that critical employees' families are safe and secure so these important employees can focus on their employment duties? Waiting until a disaster happens to realize employees have family survival issues and just can't come to work for at least five days can be an expensive operational lesson.

The final stage is recovery. This can take years. Do a little Internet research, and it would not take long to find that 13 years after the Los Angeles riots, despite the billions promised and public figures who took part, parts of Los Angeles still have the scars. How long will it take for New Orleans to recover? Right now, all that can be done to answer the question is speculation. What if your firm were located in New Orleans--would the firm survive, or would it never rise again?

FEMA, for all of the criticism it has undergone for the response to Katrina, is a valuable resource in your company's preparation efforts. Readers are encouraged to browse the FEMA Web site, perhaps starting with the Emergency Management Guide for Business & Industry (www.fema.gov/library/biz1.shtm), which can serve as a primer for preparing your company for the inevitable tomorrow. As Katrina, Rita, and Wilma have established, when "D-Day" comes, companies and safety managers will be more on their own than they can ever imagine.

This article appeared in the March 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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