Planning for the Unanticipated Emergency – Are You Ready?

Unseen hazards are everywhere, and it is your job as a safety leader to expect, react and adapt to emergencies as they unfold.

Unseen hazards are everywhere: COVID-19, hurricanes, ice storms, floods, plane crashes, toxic chemical releases—the list goes on. With all of these and more, the workplace is an unpredictable place. As a safety leader, you have to be alert and ahead of the game to plan for any seen and unseen interruption and ensure staff, visitors, residents and company assets are safe and ready to continue operations in one form or another.

Much of your success depends on how workers view you, their leader or supervisor. Are you calm and proactive—ready? Feeling panicked or defeated? Your staff needs you now more than ever, and you have trained for this your entire career. As safety leaders, it is your job to assist your company and employees succeed to every extent possible.

Think back to 9/11. Building debris covered the area around the Twin Towers, and many unknown toxins existed in the air after the disaster. Hurricane Katrina caused extensive flooding, mold exposure and a huge shortage of PPE/PPA. Now, our newest battle is an unseen virus that is hurting the world, creating massive fear reactions, isolation, shortages and collapses of supplies for the basic cleaning solutions and PPA/PPE. Do not forget the added pressures on families through lockdown, travel restrictions, isolation and financial desperation that only heightens the stress on safety in the workplace.

Fear is a natural and terrible reaction to disasters like these. I see people in public places and workplaces covering their faces with plastic bags or washing hands until they crack and bleed. The endless loop of media coverage on national news adds to the widespread anxiety. This is the time to take what we know and plan for the future.

What crisis items did your organization have enough of a supply? PPE? Cleaning supplies? For each item, list an alternative. These alternatives will likely not be as good options as what is needed, but something is better than nothing. Safety must adapt—COVID-19 issues are reshaping safety and preparedness efforts to a level never anticipated, and it will continue to do so.

Just a short time ago, most facilities or jobsites expected work interruptions due to natural or man-made disasters, and planning ahead for a few days/weeks of lost time was normal. Now we all have to rethink and re-plan for long-term shortages and work arounds when all our well-intended policies and SOP’s fail due to factors beyond our control.

As part of this, we have to be able to develop clear, concise awareness items that help. When our processes change because we have shortages, we educate. Education reduces fear in many situations. It also offers consistency.

With our new lockdown normal of COVID-19 since earlier this year, added stressors abound. Extreme shortages of PPE/PPA require thinking outside the box for staff protection and corporate survival. More than ever before, you have to communicate with staff. Some will be frightened, others dismissive. Explain, explain and train. Listen to their concerns. Rotating staffing, staggering workspaces, allowing telework and expanding work schedules may helping your workforce and company. Provide real resources for updated information to staff so that workers are not getting all information from social media. Essentially: be the voice of calm in this uncertain realm.

Make sure EAP programs are on board and available. Have supervisors regularly check on staff—not for attendance but for their safety. Give relief to your HR staff who will also be heavy burdened during this long-term, slow-moving disaster. Expect employees to be frightened, make sure they understand their value to the company and that you are doing all you can to provide them the tools to keep working.

It is a balancing act, without a doubt. You want the work to continue, but you need to help that happen safely and with workers’ health in mind. It is time to be realistic, and as safety leadership, you have to chime in on these tough decisions well in advance for how to best protect your employees and keep the mission of the company moving forward.

Ask yourself if your site or facility safety program considers all the planned and unforeseen hazards to protect workers from potential small- and large-scale disasters. Do you have additional safeguards in place for planning and eliminating larger issues that will impact your corporate bottom line?

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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OH&S Digital Edition

  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - October 2020

    October 2020


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