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Editor's Note: Weather-related emergencies, bomb threats, fire, acts of terrorism, disease outbreaks, and other disaster and emergency situations present numerous policy and procedural issues for employers. Organizations of all kinds must consider how to respond to disasters that can happen without warning, threatening the lives of employees who are forced to evacuate the workplace at a moment's notice—and possibly damaging or destroying critical infrastructure needed for business operations. Employers can adopt disaster and business continuity plans to manage these situations, help protect the lives of employees and visitors, and reduce the time and cost of returning to normal business operations.
Items employers should consider in developing business continuity planning policies include:
⃞ Declaring an emergency.
Comment: Evacuation procedures should identify who or what authority has the power to issue an evacuation order and under what circumstances. Because a wide variety of emergencies—both man-made and natural—might require a workplace evacuation, employees need to respond differently to different types of threats. For example, employers might want to have employees assemble in one main area inside the workplace if threatened by a tornado or a chemical spill nearby but evacuate to an outside location during a fire. Employers' plan must identify when and how employees should respond to various types of situations.
⃞ Warning systems.
Comment: Employers should establish a system for emergency warnings. This system should have a distinct, recognizable signal that is audible or within view by everyone in the facility; be capable of warning persons with disabilities (for example, a flashing strobe light can be used as a warning for people with hearing impairments); have an auxiliary power supply; and be tested regularly.
⃞ Evacuation procedures.
Comment: Many employers designate specific employees as evacuation coordinators to help move employees and visitors to safe areas during emergencies. The appropriate number of coordinators should be available at all times during work hours. They can be responsible for checking offices, bathrooms, and other spaces before exiting an area and ensuring that fire doors are closed when exiting. All designated employees should be trained on using alternative routes if primary evacuation routes become blocked. These employees also should be aware of employees with special needs who might require extra assistance during an evacuation, how to use the buddy system, and any hazardous areas to avoid during an evacuation.
⃞ Disaster management team.
Comment: Assembling a disaster management team is key to successful continuity planning, and senior management should select team members who are qualified to address business needs for the accounting, human resources, information technology, public relations, and legal functions.
⃞ Electronic systems/data.
Comment: The plan needs to address the amount of time it takes to restore data and telecommunication systems before the business experiences serious setbacks and how much employers are willing to pay to implement a data and telecommunications backup plan. Many organizations store more than just data in their off-site backup systems; they also safeguard copies of mission-critical software, such as operating systems and applications, so they can reinstall their entire system on other computers if needed.
⃞ Staff records.
Comment: To quickly and accurately account for employees after an evacuation, employers should maintain a complete list of current staff, including their home addresses, email addresses, telephone numbers, and emergency contacts; designate assembly areas where employees should gather after evacuating; and take a head count after the evacuation, identify the names and last known locations of anyone who isn't accounted for, and pass that information to the official in charge. Employers also should establish a method of accounting for nonemployees, such as customers, suppliers, and other visitors, and set procedures for assisting them during an evacuation.
⃞ Employees who shut down critical operations before evacuating.
Comment: Certain equipment and processes must be shut down in stages or over time, which might not be possible or practical in emergency situations. Employers should review their operations and determine whether total and immediate evacuation is possible for various types of emergencies. If any employees are designated to stay behind, employers' plan needs to detail the procedures they are to follow.
⃞ Communication procedures.
Comment: Failure to communicate effectively during an emergency is itself a disaster. Employers need sound communication procedures to report emergencies, warn employees and visitors of danger, keep family members and off-duty employees aware of what is happening at the workplace, and stay in touch with customers and suppliers.
⃞ Shared worksites.
Comment: If employers share a worksite with another employer, they should coordinate their evacuation procedures. Employers also should have further evacuation procedures in the event that an incident expands, such as sending employees home or providing transportation to an off-site location.
⃞ Business continuity.
Comment: The business continuity plan should cover employers' response to dealing with human losses, excessive absenteeism due to infectious illnesses, communication breakdowns, and the loss of data and facilities. The goal of a business continuity plan is to preserve and protect the essential elements of a business and maintain an acceptable level of operations during the crisis and recovery period. The plan also needs to address what happens if business facilities are partly or completely destroyed and how to deal with the loss of senior management or other employees (for example, critical employees and their backups need to be identified).
⃞ Outside constituencies.
Comment: The plan should identify constituencies in and outside of the company that will need information following a crisis, including employees, their families, government agencies, customers, and stockholders, and take into consideration the needs of employees affected by a disaster. These needs can range from providing counseling to help employees and their families cope with a crisis to arranging financial, housing, transportation, and other kinds of assistance.
⃞ Federal and state requirements.