Egyptian ASSE Chapter Copes Well with Tumult

The experience offers crisis management guidance for safety professionals elsewhere, Ahmed S. Azzam said during Safety 2011.

CHICAGO -- The democracy movement in Egypt that toppled Hosni Mubarak took much of the world by surprise, and the same is true for safety professionals working in that country, said Ahmed S. Azzam, QHSE country manager for Ideal Standard International in Cairo and vice president of the Egyptian chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers. Azzam described the experience while attending Safety 2011 here at McCormick Place West.

The chapter has about 260 members and has existed for a decade, Azzam said during an interview. The company for which he works, Ideal Standard International, employs approximately 3,000 workers in seven facilities in Egypt, making ceramics, fittings, and acrylics, he said. The popular uprising that began in January abruptly cut communications among the plants and resulted in a nighttime curfew, which made it difficult to continue operations, Azzam said.

"When we think about crisis management, we think of scenarios," he said. "But in this instance, it was really weird. Because when we prepare our scenarios, they are based on communications. What is happening, in reality, all communication is lost. We should restructure our requirements for crisis management for civil unrest and strikes."

Telephone land lines remained operational, but the curfew upset shifts in the company's plants, he said. And security became paramount because criminals had been released from jails, and companies were compelled to ensure the safety of expatriates working for them -- in Ideal Standard International's case, only about 10 expats were employed, Azzam said. BP, however, had more than 100, he said.

"The police vanished and still are not yet in operation," said Azzam. "There's still a hard line from a security point of view." The country awaits elections for president and its parliament, but those have not yet been scheduled.

The uprising began on a weekend with a conflict between young Egyptians and the police, he said. He said all of Egypt was shocked when more than a million people massed in Tahrir Square as the protest mushroomed. Roads were cut, and the priority became securing facilities and personnel and keeping the operations going as much as possible, he said.

They were able to maintain about 40 percent of capacity online and gradually reopened after two weeks, Azzam said.

"When you hire new people, you might put their geographical location into consideration. The only people who could keep the operations going lived right by [the facilities]," he said. And because of the curfew, the morning shift was normal but people working the second shift had to work until morning because they could not leave the facilities, he said.

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