Contributing to business continuity and crisis management strategies is a core OSH activity, writes Ryan Exley.
It is reflected as such by being one of the technical competencies within the IOSH competency framework. The framework describes it as to “collect and analyse information and use it to inform crisis management situations, using scenario-based management to contribute to problem resolution, including exercises to test what should happen in case of incidents affecting business continuity”.
We are going to explore and analyse emergency preparedness and the considerations that organisations should now be making in a post-Covid world. Given the changing working landscape and a shift to hybrid working for many organisations, how prepared are we now? With office work no longer office work as we know it, have we forgotten disabled workers?
Roles and responsibilities have always played a key role in supporting the evacuation of workers in the event of an emergency such as a fire. Having key personnel on site in the form of fire marshals or first aiders has always ensured organisations can assist workers in an emergency.
Are we still making those same considerations when we may not have account for who will be in the building from one day to the next? Do we have enough fire marshals or first aiders to satisfy this? Are we still completing risk assessments to cover the daily number of workers should it radically alter from day to day?
Whether we may or may not have considered these situations, one factor that is critical in ensuring the safety of workers is communication. Human resource departments now have a more critical role than ever to be more diligent with their checks and when allocating holidays, managing absence etc in this hybrid world as the implications of getting it wrong could be fatal.
Human resource departments must also ensure that this information is communicated to the appropriate departments, such as the OSH department. In turn, this will allow the OSH department to risk assess if an organisation has the necessary cover in the event of an emergency, especially where the workforce may all be flexible workers. It also relies on workers communicating to their organisations when they are and are not going to be in the workplace, and organisations must have solid policies and procedures to support this.
It's also crucial we do not forget workers themselves in this situation. While it is vital there is adequate cover on site, workers need to be informed who and what that cover looks like, and what the arrangements are. If things are changing on a weekly or even daily basis, how do organisations now ensure that workers are able to remember who the responsible people are in the event of an emergency? Is a weekly rota, visible and accessible to all workers, the way forward, to ensure consistency on site? Arguably, it could be one solution.
Organisations need to have an emergency procedure in place accounting for hybrid work and how they are now going to manage things daily.
Workers, whether they are in the workplace frequently or infrequently, need to be familiar with the evacuation process and evacuation points. Practicing emergency drills were a scheduled event pre-pandemic but is that still the case now? Reiterating the point about the changing landscape, if organisations don’t know who is in from one day to the next, how are workers meant to know how the evacuation process will look and feel?
Organisations may need to do more than one trial run of the new hybrid emergency procedure to ensure it works for hybrid workers. If it doesn’t work, it will allow them to consider how to make it right for their organisation. As a last resort, if all other options have been exhausted and no practical solution can be found, it could mean reverting back from hybrid working to taking every worker back in to the office. Organisations are still required to fulfil their legal duties and conduct their routine emergency evacuations; therefore it is imperative that they find a solution.
A hypothetical case study
An organisation is working out of a flexible office based on the 15th floor of an office block. While it has access to all necessary equipment, such as an evacuation chair, they have no fixed staff or any staff consistently present at the location at any one time.
One member of staff, based on the 15th floor, has mobility issues, and with no workers consistently present Monday to Friday, they need to find a workable plan for this person. Some countries, such as the UK, use personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs). These consider special arrangements and evacuations plans for a specific disabled or vulnerable worker in an emergency. For example, one worker might require an evacuation chair, another worker might require a pager system (for a deaf worker).
Emergency preparedness considerations for organisations in a hybrid world:
- Up-to-date policies and procedures to cover flexible working
- Risk assessments and dynamic risk assessments
- Personal emergency evacuation planning for vulnerable individuals
- Good communication line with human resources
- Sufficient competent workers on site in case of emergency (e.g. fire marshals and first aiders)
- Sufficient equipment on site (e.g. evac chairs)
- Practice, practice, practice!!
- Would a PEEP work in this situation if there are no fixed staff?
- Is this something you have considered?
- How would your organisation deal with this situation?
- How do you manage the communication channels between human resources, OSH and the workers directly?
- With the fluid situation, how often would you review any risk assessment or plans for evacuating disabled workers?
- Are organisations at risk of discrimination against disabled workers because they are no longer capable of ‘homing’ them for a lack of resource?
- What is your organisation’s plan for managing emergency evacuations in a hybrid world if the initial practice runs did not go to plan and are not sufficient?