Two million people in Florida and South Carolina were asked to evacuate to avoid the impact of Hurricane Matthew. We’ve seen the preparations made by locals through their postings on social media. Barriers were brought out of sheds and firmly attached to every window around the house. Calculations were made as to how much could be fitted in the car, and decisions made about what to take. For holidays, we might think of clothes first, but if you don’t know what state your house will be in when you get, you think of what can and can’t be replaced. Social media lists and photographs some of the precious, irreplaceable heirlooms being packed, in preference to stuff that can be bought new. Grandma’s china doll; Grandpa’s squeeze box; cards the children made when they were little. The back of the car full to the roof with boxes, they headed inland and uphill to stay with other family.
Their preparations led us to think about emergency preparedness at work. Getting the full message from a bomb threat can make the difference between everyone evacuating safely and in-time – or people failing to move, or even moving in the wrong direction. The likelihood of anyone receiving such a threat is extraordinarily low – but it could happen, and there needs to be value placed on training for high-impact, low probability events. For example, fires in modern office buildings are also low probability events, but most organisations practice for them.
Something of interest from all affected by Hurricane Matthew was that they already had suitable materials to protect their homes. Storms happen on a frequent enough basis that although they have never had to leave their home before, they have had to protect their property before, so they are prepared. Packing to leave was a new experience, and although it might be a good game to play on a long car journey “if I had to evacuate, in my car I’d take …” it’s probably not something most of us give much thought to.
Many organisations however do have business continuity plans. Although the first job of health and safety is to stop the serious accidents happening, those which are out of our control – caused by terrorism, the weather or a failure in utility provision, for example – should still be considered and planned for. Health and safety professionals can provide a valuable input in this area. Whilst you can’t plan for every low probability event (an Earthquake in Edinburgh, a tsunami in central London or aliens landing) you can consider a range of possible outcomes. How many essential staff could your building support, and for how long, without mains water? Can you plan in advance who the essential staff would be, to avoid an undignified argument if this ever happens? If you know this, the same information will be useful if other resources are limited. Where would people go to work if the building was unavailable, and how would you let them know this? Having the contingency plan on the PC on your desk is not much use if you can’t get into the building. What backups have you got if the building is destroyed, along with every piece of paper and every server in the building?
The fires resulting from the Buncefield explosion took four days to put out, and local businesses weren’t allowed near their buildings for nearly a week. When people returned to their premises they found them unusable, the workplace covered in broken glass and damaged machinery. A Government report on the after effects suggests that 90 companies were “severely affected” by the incident, with lost stock, lost orders, lost data all cited as causes. Some organisations had to make severe staff cuts. Two went into liquidation.
Statistically you’re unlikely to suffer an explosion or a hurricane, but take a look at the hazards outside your workplace, and remember that a bit of preparation goes a long way.