When is it safe to return after a natural disaster?

With the recent devastation of natural disasters around the world, organisations are challenged more than ever to keep local business operations stable, while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their people. The immediate impact of an earthquake or hurricane to local infrastructure and communities is immense, but to avoid significant business disruption, organisations will commonly aim to resume operations as soon as possible after impact. However, resuming operations after such a disruption could actually cause more harm. It is imperative for organisations to understand the impact and develop a precise plan of how to best resume operations based on the health and safety in the affected area.


Natural disaster man with dog

What are the risks?

  • Infrastructure: The integrity of offices and facilities is likely to be affected by structural damage and flooding. Recommending local employees work from home is suggested but their devices should be considered for any vulnerabilities. IT and security systems should also be assessed as the likelihood of experiencing down time is high. Conducting a review of the physical infrastructure is key to protect against threats like looting or cybercrime.
  • Emotional health: Fear, anxiety, sadness and shock are typical emotional responses after a natural disaster. However they may become longer term issues. Following Hurricane Sandy, almost half of survivors reported symptoms of mental distress1. Supporting the emotional health of employees is as important as supporting physical health.
  • Water, food, sanitation: Access to safe food and water is critical. The disaster can contaminate water sources and food with bacteria, sewage, agricultural or industrial waste, chemicals.  Food may spoil due to lack of refrigeration from power failures.
  • Healthcare: Healthcare facilities may be directly damaged, or have staff who are unavailable. Additionally they may struggle to cope with the increased demand for services. Basic medications may be in short supply. 
  • Travel restrictions: Overland travel should be avoided where the local infrastructure has been affected. Roads may be congested with buses, military or aid vehicles. Travel to airports should only be undertaken after the status of routes is established and airline reservations are confirmed. All movement should be conducted in daylight hours only.

Natural disaster high water sign

Important factors to consider:

  • Understand your critical workforce needs and prioritize the order in which you need to recover operations. If possible, temporarily shift critical responsibilities to team members outside the affected area and focus on engaging with employees that are most critical to continue operations.
  • Don’t only rely on local government and services, at least in the short term. Governments and public services will focus first on critical infrastructure and community safety. Anticipate delays in services such as power restoration or the issuance of occupancy certificates.
  • Expect long lead times for replacement equipment. Shipping delays should be expected as roadways reopen and sellers rush to fulfill orders.
  • Review insurance coverage. Risk management should consider what policies will cover loss or damage of assets and work stoppage.
  • Keep communication consistent with your team responsible for managing a crisis as well as employees and business partners.

Important steps to follow:

Before assuming that your employees can return to work as usual, consider developing a check list of factors that could impact your business. We have outlined below the important factors to consider.

  • Firstly, organisations must carry out an in-depth assessment of the damage to the work environment. Key decision makers need to determine if the workplace is safe and secure before their people return. If there are any potential risks that could cause harm, consider allowing certain business functions to work remotely. Alternatively, there may be a temporary space where employees could work while the facilities are being restored.
  • Accounting for all employees and understanding their availability will help establish a realistic timeline to resume business. Critical staff and alternates should confirm availability so they can be included in the recovery process. Companies will need to confirm their emergency leave policy and clearly communicate the details to all employees. Many organisations will allow employees to take unexcused absence to care for their families and property.
  • Most importantly, organisations need to establish a step-by-step process for having employees return to the workplace once it is safe and secure. Working under the direction of a business leader, support functions such as facility services, IT and security should return first to re-establish fundamental office operations. Once support functions are recovered and the workplace is considered safe and secure for occupants and operations alike, the remaining executives should return to work. This group will set the example for the balance of personnel who will return to work shortly afterward.

 

Natural disaster flooded offices 

The aftermath:

When business resumes as usual, there are still important steps to be considered to ensure confidence has been fully restored and to mitigate against any future risks.

  • Review your incident management: As the possible threats in an incident management plan vary, we recommend evaluating how the effective the plan was in mitigating risks of a natural disaster. Review what worked well and what could be improved upon. Ensure the plan is available and easily accessible for all staff.
  • Support the emotional needs of your people: Consider all employees, travellers and their dependents. Proactively offer on-going expert support. 
  • Continue to monitor all of your operations: The effect a natural disaster may have on your business could exist long after the dust has cleared. Continue to closely monitor all of your offices and workplaces. 

It is never too early to start planning how to safely and steadily resume regular business operations should a natural disaster strike.

 

1Schwartz RM, Sison C et al. The impact of Hurricane Sandy on the mental health of New York area residents.
Am J Disaster Med. 2015;10(4):339-46. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27149315