Preparing for an emergency

Preparing for  an emergency

by Jon M. Casey

When it comes to preparing for an emergency, it seems that most people are not really prepared. That’s why it’s called an emergency. But what if you could make preparations when there was no emergency, to get ready for the time when clear thinking instead of chaos might be the better course of action? That is what Todd B. Logsdon, Esq., partner in the Louisville office of the Fisher Phillips law firm, highlighted during his safety webinar “In Case of Emergency: The Aftermath,” hosted by EHS Today® and sponsored by Avetta, a risk management provider.

During his presentation, Logsdon focused on six principles to follow when responding to a critical incident. These include incident scene safety, the need to prevent further harm when an event occurs; prompt care for the injured; and to preserve respect and dignity for the injured and those involved including co-workers and immediate family members. Once the initial time has passed, companies need to restore “normal” operations, fix the problem that brought about the incident (not blame those involved) and prevent recurrence.

He began by defining what a catastrophe or emergency might entail. Events such as public fatalities or mass injuries, fire or explosions, natural disasters like tornadoes or floods, financial crisis or criminal allegations and other newsworthy emergencies are some of the events for which businesses should prepare. His focus for this presentation was on things safety professionals would need to consider in a business setting. Logsdon emphasized that events like this could happen to anyone at any time.

He pointed out, for example, that in 2009 there were 4,551 workplace fatalities nationally. Despite being the lowest annual total on record, that still equates to almost 50 fatalities per day. Many of these include workplace vehicles that involve the public. Weather-related issues are another major source of concern.

When catastrophe strikes, employees, emergency responders and the accompanying business disruption will need attention. Investigators, insurance people, news media and law enforcement are next on the list. Others to consider include defense and plaintiff counsel, governmental agencies and workers’ compensation. Eventually, customers and vendors who work with the affected company will also need to be informed. Preparing for the aftermath is a critical step.

How to prepare

Logsdon recommends company executives appoint a planning team. This team is tailored to the specific industry or business. It should consider the “big picture,” the most likely risks and the least likely, yet quite terrible risks such as a terror attack or a product liability claim. The planning team should be made up of people with leadership skills and the knowledge and expertise to implement the plan.

The development of the emergency management plan needs to include a crisis management action procedure with an incident command system. This will ensure the business will be prepared to fit in with the police and emergency responders when they arrive on the scene.

Likewise, a procedure for how to respond to regulatory agencies such as MSHA or OSHA needs to be in place. The media is also an important consideration. A spokesperson needs to be designated in advance.

A second stage of preparation includes how to return to business operations once the initial event has passed. Is there an employee assistance plan in place? A community outreach plan is also important, especially if the event goes beyond the business property line. Letting the nearby community know what kind of business you operate can go a long way to making your crisis management a little easier.

Logsdon noted that pre-event preparation should include safety compliance audits and hazard assessment. “Heading off these problems before they happen [is important],” he said.

With the proposed plan in place, the company executives need to endorse the plan, in important ways. They need to do it in writing, signing off on the plan document and then informing all of the employees via memo or other form of media. They also need to announce the plan in person.

The written plan needs to be put in one place and should include step-by-step instructions, names and contact information of all key people and prepared media statement that can be given by the designated spokesperson. By having a prepared statement, it lets the public know your company is getting involved with solving the problem and is not trying to hide anything. A “no comment” statement gives the public a reason to be suspicious.

Next, training in how to use these materials and how to implement an emergency management scenario needs to take place. Training is essential. Training sessions are best accomplished with scenario-based sessions that help build confidence and prepare employees. Tabletop sessions are helpful, but not nearly as beneficial as participating in a “real-time” event. After training sessions, planning and response teams need to review the strengths and weaknesses of the plan and update it. Executives then need to endorse the updated plan so that everyone is “on the same page.”

Emergency response

When an emergency actually takes place, that is the time to take action. Handling the accident or incident is the top priority. Logsdon said oversight of the initial evacuation or containment should include accounting for ALL employees and isolating the area of the incident to prevent further injury or damages. Prompt care for any injured needs to be coordinated with the emergency responders.

Preserving any evidence, securing the scene as a safety precaution and determining whether work can continue or should be shut down is the next consideration. Preventing any recurrence of the incident and isolating hazards needs to be addressed at this time.

Notifying corporate management and legal counsel should take place as soon as possible. Site managers need to provide details of the incident and give the status of the incident resolution. They need to contact OSHA/MSHA counsel as well as other corporate counsel for insurance and legal needs. Considering the exposure to claims by customers, employees and the public is a part of the legal counsel’s responsibilities.

Employee concerns such as assigning duties for accident/incident response are extremely important. Initial communications about the investigations, activating employee assistance needs, addressing safety concerns and scheduling work and leave are a priority. Employees need to be reassured. Families need to be informed and met with to assess their needs and to communicate what is taking place with regard to their family members. Assessing what they may need in the way of material or monetary support takes place at this time.

Dealing with the news media takes place early on. The designated company spokesperson needs to respond quickly and proactively. “Never say ‘No comment,’” said Logsdon. Keep the updates brief. Written communications should be limited, if released at all. A pro-active message to the public, consumers and vendors will reassure them as well.

Remember the appropriate time deadlines for reporting accidents/incidents to regulators like OSHA, MSHA, EPA, DOT, etc. Only notify those entities that are required to be notified. Insurance carriers and workers’ compensation people need to be contacted as well. This can be coordinated with the various counsel representatives that are a part of the initial plan. Other outside inquiries may take place and will need to be handled as well.

When investigations by internal and external groups begin, be prepared to manage a host of people including employees, legal counsel and witnesses. Protect the accident scene, especially if it is designated a crime scene. Focus on timely and appropriate documentation of all kinds since a number of agencies may need it.

OSHA, MSHA, ATF, DOT and state officials such as the Fire Marshall and Attorney General’s office may need to be satisfied during the investigation time. OSHA and/or MSHA have very specific protocols when it comes to investigations, so it is imperative the incident management personnel are familiar with what is required during this time.

Finally, if there are civil and criminal actions that are taking place against the company, legal teams that have been put into place early in the overall event proceedings need to oversee the litigation. Various claims, insurance questions and investigatory inquires will need to be handled by qualified representatives for the company.

While Logsdon’s presentation was given as an overview for planning purposes, it is understood that much more can take place when an emergency hits a business. As he emphasized, it never hurts to be prepared. For more information, email tlogsdon@fisherphillips.com.

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