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  • Writer's pictureKsenia Wagensveld

When risk controls fail? Let's chat about emergency planning and response.

I often have conversations with my clients about emergency planning and find myself trying to elevate emergency planning thinking beyond building fire safety compliance. While building fire safety compliance is important to ensure all of the people in a building know how to respond in the unlikely event of a fire, emergency planning really extends much further than this.

Just as ISO45001 tell us, emergency planning should relate to the risks in your business. Which of course takes some time to understand the nature of the work being done and how much control you can have over that work. As I like to tell my clients, Emergency planning is about how you intend to minimise harm when your risk controls fail. Emergency preparedness then is about making those post failure interventions as natural and effective as possible. We also don't have to limit our thinking to health and safety emergencies, but apply this kind of thinking to your business continuity and product/ service risks.

The diagram below is a typical sort of Risk Management continuous process, it fits nicely into the PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT model common across the ISO management systems models.

What if we then look at the same risks in your business and start to wonder what happens if the controls that are in place for your most serious risks fail? That is the emergency! It could even be the disaster you never wanted to know about.

A lot of my clients don't necesarily fall into what might be typically classified as high risk industries, but that doesn't mean they don't undertake 'high risk' work. It also generally means they are not highly regulated and the requirements for anticipating and preparing for an emergency are also less regulated.

I like to challenge my clients when their emergency response plan is limited to 'call 000'.

So when an excavation team tells me their emergency response plan is "call 000", I simply ask, do you really intend to stand-by for 17mins doing nothing, while your workmate suffocates in a trench collapse? In reality those teams know they won't stand by and watch and wait, so while I don't have the answers ready, I'm challenging my client to really think it through, start a conversation and start really planning.

When a team leader of seven staff that travel remotely throughout outback Queensland tells me his emergency plan is to call 000, I simply ask "when and how?". When do you know your remote worker has been in an incident, if they haven't responded in a while at what point do you initiate a search and rescue response or call the family? These are really important explorations to have in your business based on your actual risks.

Once you understand the risks, which ones are critical and which ones you should have emergency response plans for, you need to develop and communicate unambiguous emergency response plans that are suitably specific to your organisation. You then need to bring that emergency response plan to life. Emergency plans that sit on a shelf are worth less than the paper they are written on. Test, fail, review, test again. Testing doesn't need to involve expensive and ellaborate scenarios, actors and fake blood (although, if you can...Awesome!). Develop and run through scenarios, query and question the important players. Seek assurance that a response will be timely and effective and make ammendments when it's not.

Tweak the plan and test it again.

Be sure that your response on the ground can work practically, but also that the rest of the organisation knows how to support the people on the ground in an emergency. Operationally there will be things the organisation can do to take the heat out of the emergency. While the supervisor on the ground is literally putting out fires, who in your organisation is managing internal and external communications, who is taking the heat from customers, who is alerting utilities and suppliers to stop them entering the emergency area??? So many questions that require real consultation in your business with the workers that know the work, and the relevant subject matter experts.

Emergency Equipment and Expertise

Preparedness also involves ensuring the equipment and expertise you need to respond stay effective. Rescue equipment, fire equipment, alarm systems, emergency stops all need to checked regularly and tested to ensure they will achieve the desired result. Likewise, your emergency staff need to be regularly refreshed and provided with the most current training and procedures so that they are ready and can work together. When I first started working in factories as a baby OHS graduate I was astounded by staff who weren't confident to use an extinguisher or when faced with an injury couldn't apply their first aid training. That's another reason to test. Not everybody who puts their hand up to volunteer naturally has the ability to perform under pressure. I've seen first aiders go pale at the first sign of blood and suddenly we have an extra victim to look after and the emergency is escalating. We used to run very carefully managed fire training with real extinguishers and real fire. MOST FUN TRAINING EVER! But also incredibly valuable. We did work in a tinder box otherwise known as a particleboard factory. Take note this was an age before virtual reality training and all training was face to face. Every person could prove they could pull a pin and point an extinguisher and use a fire hose.

Standing Down

Having a process to stand-down from an emergency is also important. It's about the organisation having a plan on how it will 'return to normal'. Nobody can operate at crisis level continually. This stand-down should consider ensuring anybody exposed to trauma has an opportunity to de-brief and is looked after. It's about ensuring you take the time to learn the lessons from what went wrong, but also what went right. Why wasn't there more damage? What did we do right that stopped the incident / emergency from becoming a catastrophe? Those lessons have to be integrated back into the business for your continual improvement efforts. People need to be acknowledged for their efforts and people need to be reassured that the organisation is putting steps in place to further reduce the liklihood of a recurrence.

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