Employee assistance in an emergency

November 07, 2017


Employee safety is an important subject to touch upon at this particular time. In the past few months alone we have seen a slew of crisis events around the world that have thrown millions of lives into chaos – from the wave of hurricanes battering the Caribbean; to the flooding emergency in Houston; and the tragic earthquakes in Mexico City.

For people affected by such events it can be a deeply frightening, unsettling and indeed dangerous time. Similarly, it can be difficult for companies to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their workforce, while at the same time trying to ensure the business itself can be sustained.

So, how can businesses – from SMEs to large multinationals – ensure the safety of their employees around the world in the event of a crisis such as a natural hazard or terrorist attack? First and foremost it is vital that companies have comprehensive contingency plans that can be put in place at a moment’s notice to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their employees and their respective families.

Whether you have five employees or 50,000, it is important to have a plan, ready to be put into action in the event of a crisis. When it comes to dealing with natural hazards – depending on the particular scenario – it is sometimes the case that there is some kind of advance warning, even if this is just a few hours’ notice, which means people can be advised on how best to prepare in some way for what is to come.

Hurricane Harvey is one recent example where a forecast warning was issued in advance, meaning those based in and around Houston had some idea of what to expect. We knew the storm was coming and that it was going to severely affect those caught up in its path. We were also warned that the damage was going to be catastrophic, and that if people remained in their homes, their lives would be in danger. Although the window was short, there was some time to put contingency plans and evacuations into action, to try to ensure the safety and wellbeing of employees working and living in the area. In the case of Hurricane Irma, which called for a state-wide evacuation, many companies gave their employees paid leave so they could evacuate. However despite this, a large number of people stayed behind to protect their homes, or were unable to exit the state owing to traffic hold ups.

One solution in these circumstances is to coordinate a process to reach out to all those who decided to remain in the area. It is important to conduct a ‘head count’ of sorts, to determine their safety and wellbeing, what support or assistance they require, and to keep them updated on the a very fluid situation.

The damage caused by the likes of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma can set cities back years, especially when you take into consideration the time and money that will be needed to invest in rebuilding. People’s lives will be severely affected by the damage to their homes, possessions and, in some cases, the loss of a loved one. It is important to ensure that all those affected have access to specially trained counsellors as quickly as possible to help them cope with the trauma and loss experienced.

Beyond the damage to infrastructure, such an event can be harrowing for the individuals who are caught up in it, many of whom will face huge financial difficulties of their own as they work to rebuild their homes. It is at this stage that the benefit of having a robust crisis management programme really comes into its own and enables companies to provide their employees and family members with all the additional support required. Such support encompasses counselling and medical rehabilitation, in order to help them get back on their feet and to protect their future wellbeing.

Turning to terrorism, attacks such as the recent incident at Parsons Green Tube Station in London, or the Brussels bombings in 2016, generally take place without advance warning. When dealing with these unexpected crises, the first step is to try to ascertain who has been affected.

My experience has shown that in the event of a terrorist attack, companies can be swamped with calls from wives, husbands or partners who are worried about their family members and loved ones. No organisation is geared up to cater for such an event, so the process needs to be carefully co-ordinated in close co-operation with the respective emergency services. In the case of a terror attack, there is no time to prepare, so the need for contingency plans to be in place is crucial.

During the Parsons Green incident, for example, 19 people were taken from the incident to different hospitals around London. At a time like this, the situation on the ground can become quite chaotic: phone networks can go down, and often in the chaos people leave their homes or workplaces without their mobile phones or handbags, meaning they cannot be contacted or get in touch with loved ones to let them know they are safe. This is where the benefit of having a dedicated crisis team that can help co-ordinate a response and locate employees and their family members comes into its own.

Family members who are worried about loved ones they cannot locate will be helped by access to a centralised 24/7 emergency telephone line that is manned by experienced handlers. If you appoint a specialist company for your crisis management plans, they should have teams that work closely with the emergency services based at the scene, and will attempt to locate those who might have been caught up in the incident to find out if they are safe and well, or where a family member is being medically treated.

Companies should also ensure that if further support is needed after the event, the best care is provided, whether for psychological or physical issues.

If you decide to outsource such crisis management plans, make sure that the provider develops a plan that is unique to your organisation. Work closely with the company so it can ensure the steps necessary to protect all of your staff are in place and ready to be put into action at any given time.

For example, Allianz Partners provide 24/7 emergency phone lines, and also have an app that can be accessed anywhere in the world. This allows it to send out mass texts to employees to begin assessing the safety of each employee as quickly as possible.

Crisis plans need to be constantly reviewed and updated, assisting employees and organisations to cope with such challenging events. Time invested in proactively planning for these kinds of contingencies gives a level of comfort to human resources teams and their staff. They will know that everything that can be done to mitigate the risks, is being done, and that steps will be taken quickly and efficiently if something, unfortunately, does happen.

Martin McLaughlin heads up the Global Health Services with Allianz Partners. He is an expert in working with businesses – from SMEs to multinationals – to ensure the safety of their employees all over the world, including in crisis scenarios
This article was first published in Crisis Response Journal Vol :13 | Issue: 1 | October 2017