Coping with Catastrophe: The First 24 Hours

Article excerpt

Plant fires. Explosions. Workplace fatalities or serious injuries. Episodes of employee violence. One only has to read the newspapers, browse the web, or watch the news to appreciate what can happen to a business if it does not have trained personnel and an action plan ready in case a catastrophe strikes.

Every employer--manufacturers and service providers alike--can encounter an unexpected workplace emergency that has the potential to effectively cripple its business for weeks or even months. Oftentimes, a small event can turn into a crisis because it was not prepared for, or effectively dealt with, from the start. The old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," rings especially true when it regards catastrophe management.

How quickly and how well a company responds to a workplace emergency, particularly in the first 24 hours, can dramatically affect the long-term legal and financial impact of the event on the company's operations. Planning what to do, and who will do it, ahead of time can help limit the damage and speed the recovery process.

Respond Proactively

A company's number one priority in any emergency situation should be to safely bring the emergency to a prompt end. Decide in advance who will be your company's primary liaison with emergency response personnel in the event of a workplace crisis (the facility manager or resident health, environment and safety director often are logical choices). Make sure the liaison, and his or her backup, are prepared to use the company's available resources to help bring the situation under control.

Recognize, however, that most states have laws that explicitly grant legal control of an emergency scene to responding police or firefighters. The watchwords to follow with public safety officials are "cooperation, assistance and guidance." Emergency responders are not likely to tolerate what they view as interference (such as prematurely shutting off building alarms), but they will appreciate and often accept affirmative assistance in the form of offers to serve as building guides, to supply lists of on-site hazardous materials or access to employees with specific useful knowledge or expertise. As a precaution, store multiple copies of important resource materials (e.g., building plans, government permits, material safety data sheets) at various locations around your facilities so they will be more easily accessible in the event of an emergency.

In a crisis situation, your company is legally responsible not only for protecting the lives and property of its employees and the public at large, but frequently the lives and property of the responding authorities as well. Many jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, Illinois, Florida and New York, do not recognize or follow the "firefighter's rule," which bars public safety officers who are injured in the course of their official duties from recovering for their injuries from those persons whose alleged negligence necessitated the officers' presence at the scene. As a consequence, your company may be held liable for any harm that a responding police officer, firefighter or other safety officer suffers during a workplace emergency if the root cause of the incident later can be traced to something that the company negligently or wrongfully did or failed to do.

Company personnel often will understand the hazards that emergency responders face better than the responding authorities. Some public safety officials do not appreciate their own limits, and even the best-trained responders can and do make mistakes. Therefore, company employees should be prepared to speak up if they believe that a particular response measure is inappropriate or unsafe. In incidents that may involve chemicals or other hazardous materials, every responding authority (including all state and local police and fire departments) is required by federal law (United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations), and made applicable to otherwise exempt state and local personnel by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to have both an "incident commander" and a "safety officer" who are specifically responsible for overseeing the safety of all response operations. …