Last reviewed 19 July 2017

Disasters happen to other people. This is a comforting thought until it happens to you and then your world can be blown apart. The organisation may be ruined, employees may lose their jobs, people may be killed. You may not have caused the disaster but people who have experienced one have said that the thought that they might have done something to prevent it or at least alleviate the impact — saved part of the business, saved injuries, saved lives — is likely to haunt them forever. Bob Patchett says as an employer you have great responsibility for the safety of your people and as a manager you have great responsibility for the organisation.

Regrettably you need to accept that your organisation could be hit by some disaster and therefore address four issues. What could happen, how can we prevent it or minimise its probability, how should we handle it if it occurs, and who should manage the situation?

Disaster management is not something for health and safety or personnel staff to deal with exclusively. Certainly they should be deeply involved, but the exercise in the initial stages should be undertaken by a broad spectrum of staff in order to draw on the knowledge of all employee groups and to generate good lateral thinking. By all means draw on the work of other organisations and outside bodies, but this is your workplace and your risks, therefore start with blank pages and consider your particular potential problems and how to solve them.

Begin with a brainstorming session. This needs careful management to encourage participants to think seriously yet prevent nervousness from inhibiting them from offering ideas. You need both serious thought and laughter, the latter because ridiculous comments can provoke useful ideas. What might happen to your organisation? Fire, flood are obvious events. But what about part of an aircraft falling on the premises, a tornado ripping off the roof, bomb threat, a terrorist getting onto the premises? Unlikely maybe, but possible. Participants in this session need to search their brains and come out with anything that is possible, however unlikely, and anything offered should be recorded and not immediately rejected. Then go through the list and reject only those that are hardly possible. A landslide in central London? No, but perfectly possible in rural valleys.

You may then like to form one or more small working groups of people with expertise or good thinking skills to examine each risk and determine how to deal with it. The first approach would be to remove the risk, the second to protect people from it, and the third to teach them to handle it. Where the risk is high, you probably need to spend money to minimise it, but if disaster does strike, the appropriate action will be to alert everyone and get them to a place of safety. Each working group’s results should then be put to another group for constructive criticism until, perhaps with management intervention, a formula is reached for dealing with the incident.

Some risks are quite common. Fire, for example, may occur in any organisation, while some risks are common to specific industries or processes, and in these cases there may be clear advice available for dealing with them. The working groups should therefore be looking closely not only at risks that are peculiar to their own organisation because of their type of work or location, but also at highly improbable but nevertheless possible disasters that may occur. An air crash onto the premises is more likely close to an airfield, a major flood to premises downstream from a dam.

Fire is a common disaster, and organisations usually have procedures for dealing with an outbreak. Essentially deal with a small outbreak with extinguishers but, unless that kills the fire quickly and completely, switch off all machinery and non-essential power and vacate the premises, calling the fire service and maintaining clear access to the premises. Assembly points should be clearly marked, understood and access kept clear, and fire drills should be held regularly to familiarise employees with the procedure. All employees should be taught, and reminded regularly, of the location of nearby fire extinguishers, which to use and how to deploy them. A live demonstration of letting off and applying an extinguisher does much to make people remember the process.

The cause of a fire, or indeed any hazard that strikes, may well result in injury to employees, therefore it is essential that sufficient first-aid skill is available at all times. First-aid bodies will for a modest fee come and train selected employees in advanced first-aid techniques, but there is much to be said for giving every employee basic training, especially in hazardous areas.

Major disasters require drastic and urgent action. Non-injured employees should be told firmly to vacate the premises to a predetermined safe place. First aid should be given to the injured if that can be done without serious risk of injury to the aiders. The emergency services should be alerted and told in simple terms what has happened and precisely where. All should be done rapidly and at the same time. Employees should be told in advance and at the time where to assemble so that a roll call may be taken. This is critical because fire and rescue staff will risk their lives by going into a building if there are people in there but otherwise will fight the fire from a safe distance. If you are asked “is anyone in there?”, you will feel a huge responsibility, so make sure you can handle it confidently. If you are evacuating the premises following a bomb warning, keep people away from the car park because that would be the ideal place to plant a bomb for maximum injury. Send them to a predetermined offsite assembly point, but take a roll call. Your electrical alarm systems may be disabled so keep a manual alarm such as whistle or concert triangle in every section and tell everyone what sounding them means.

In a disaster the normal hierarchy of authority probably will need to be ignored. A Crisis Manager should be appointed to take charge, and everyone, even more senior staff, should follow his or her orders until the crisis has passed. That person should attend training with the police, fire and rescue services to ensure that his or her actions will dovetail with them. This should be someone senior such as a works manager who traditionally gives instructions and who, most important, is likely to be on site. Two deputies, appointed to cover for holidays and sickness, should receive the same training. The Crisis Manager should be charged with ensuring that procedures are kept up to date and that all employees are given regular practice in evacuation, in taking roll calls and in using fire extinguishers. As soon as is practicable, heads of appropriate departments may need to contact customers and suppliers to explain what has happened and how it affects them.

This may seem like a lot of work for something that is unlikely to happen, but if it does happen and you have not done sensible precautionary work, would you like to face the families of employees who have lost their lives?