Australia: Natural disasters in 2011 put emergency response procedures to the test

Key Points:
If you were affected by an emergency, now is an ideal time to review your emergency response procedures to identify what worked – and what didn't.

It was a dramatic start to 2011, with cyclones and flooding across the country having a severe impact on a variety of company operations. This was a stark reminder of the importance of having an effective emergency response procedure in the workplace, and it put many existing procedures to the test. In the aftermath, it is important to analyse the effectiveness of your company's emergency response procedures to ensure your business, its workers and other persons are adequately prepared and protected.

While such disasters may be few and far between, the economic impact on your business of failing to manage the emergency can be fatal, so the continual review and improvement of such procedures must be made a priority.

Obligation to have an emergency response procedure in place

Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) obligations under relevant State and Territory laws continue to apply even though the circumstances may be exceptional. Floods, fires and cyclones are foreseeable hazards, albeit rarely to the extent that we have seen in 2011.

This means that a company must take steps to ensure that its OH&S management system relevantly addresses the hazards and risks associated with such disasters. This ensures that a company's operations and work environment do not expose its workers and other persons to any risks arising out of the event, particularly where they can be avoided by an effective emergency response procedure.

It also makes economic sense to include in the procedures mechanisms to ensure that operations can continue, for example, remotely or at an alternative location, to minimise the economic impact on the business, but the OH&S hazards and risks associated with such alternatives also need to be managed.

While most companies are aware of the need for an emergency response procedure, given its ad hoc use, these procedures are often forgotten, not appropriately tested, reviewed and improved and relevant training may lapse.

We have highlighted below some of the steps that need to be taken before, during and after the event to ensure your emergency response procedure is effective.

Before the event

An emergency can occur with little or no notice, so it's important for a company to be prepared and have an emergency response procedure in place that has been tested (for example, through drill) and that all employees and other relevant persons are trained in the emergency response procedures, and know how to access it. Identification of key persons and decision-makers, their role and responsibilities is also key.

A timeline should be set for ongoing monitoring and review and a responsible person should be identified to ensure that this occurs.

The risk assessment of the workplace and its operations should also be undertaken to identify the hazards and risks, and there should be mechanisms for minimising workers' and other persons' exposure to the risks. For example, if your workplace is in a flood-prone area, then it would be prudent to ensure that vital infrastructure, such as power boxes and IT facilities, are not in areas most likely to be affected by the flood (for example, basements and ground floods of buildings).

Other relevant OH&S policies and procedures, such as incident reporting and management, need to be flexible enough to respond to the event.

During the event

Companies must take steps to ensure the health and safety of persons during an emergency event by compliance with the emergency response procedures. This includes appropriate persons managing employees and others during the event and maintaining appropriate communication and reporting. At a minimum, employees should be able to easily access the emergency response procedure or be able to contact a hotline for further guidance.

You should also consider the process for evacuation, not only from the immediate employment premises but from the affected locality generally. In some circumstances evacuation may not actually be the best option, for example, if the workplace is remotely located, as this may expose workers and other persons to other hazards and risks.

Where there is sufficient time, consideration should also be given to preparing the workplace itself before any emergency, for example, moving machinery and equipment to ensure that it does not become a hazard. However, it is important to ensure that during this process employees are not placed at increased risk of injuries, for instance, by being required to move objects in an unsafe manner or use equipment they have not been trained to use.

Mechanisms put in place to enable employees to work remotely or in alternative locations should also be the subject of risk assessment to ensure that this does not expose any employees or other applicable persons to any additional hazards or risks.

After the event

Any safety incidents which have occurred as a result of the event will need to be reported and managed in compliance with the company's incident response and management procedures.

If employees are required to participate in cleaning up the aftermath of an event, appropriate risk assessments needs to be undertaken to ensure there is a safe work environment and to avoid any employees or other persons being exposed to any risk. While many risks will be obvious and self-evident, others such as electrical damage or asbestos containing materials may be more difficult to identify. Employers should not be required to undertake any work for which a suitably qualified person is required.

Temporary work arrangements which continue after the event may also need to be assessed.

Counselling and EAP support must to be offered to employees to avoid the risk of psychological injuries arising out of the event.

Review of policies

If you were affected by an event, now is an ideal time to review your emergency response procedures to identify what worked and what needs to be improved. We have prepared the checklist below as a starting point for conducting a review of your emergency response procedures.

  • Did you have an emergency response plan in place?
  • Did you and your employees know what to do?
  • If not, was your emergency response plan easily accessible?
  • Was your emergency response followed and was it effective?
  • If it was not followed/effective, why not? What do you need to do to rectify this?
  • Was communication with employees/clients effective throughout the emergency?
  • Was employee support available throughout the emergency?
  • What were your relevant safety policies and procedures and were they followed?
  • Were they flexible enough to respond to abnormal operating conditions?
  • Were safety standards maintained? If not, why not?
  • Was the requisite safety equipment available/used by employees?
  • Were proper risk management procedures followed?
  • Were there any safety incidents? How have you managed them?
  • Are you successfully managing/supporting employees under stress/with other behavioural issue?
  • Is additional training in emergency response required?
  • What mechanisms do you have in place to ensure that your emergency response procedure is tested and reviewed in preparation for similar events in the future?

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The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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