The events of the past few years have demonstrated that in addition to the importance of daily safety readiness, injury prevention strategies, and wellness support, there’s another safety factor that must be top of mind for any organizational leader: emergency preparedness.
That’s why we’re kicking off National Safety Month 2023 with a rundown of key steps that should be included in any employer’s plan for handling a sudden outbreak of any infectious disease. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) outlines five main capabilities for emergency preparedness that every organization should keep in mind while designing their own protocols and allocating resources:
Here at DORN, we’ve adapted these capabilities to a series of protocols that organizations can apply across their operations and work sites, specifically regarding preparedness for infectious diseases. Following this strategy will help safety leaders create a scalable process for protecting worker health while keeping operations on track throughout an emergency.
Component 1: Workforce Planning
When it comes to emergency preparedness, the best plan you can follow is the one you already have in place. Scrambling to implement a plan after an emergency has occurred is sure to lead to costly delays and potentially damaging health effects for workers. Employers should develop a committee composed of representatives from across the organization, including departmental supervisors as well as contributors from EHS, human resources, legal, and employee unions. This team should focus on creating, updating, and implementing an emergency preparedness plan that includes these elements:
- Feasibility: To what extent can operations be continued during an emergency? What resources or adjustments will be required to do so?
- Infectious Disease Outbreak Preparedness: How much personal protective equipment does the organization have on hand for an emergency? Are employees properly trained in their use?
- Employee Support: How can the organization prepare to answer questions and alleviate staff anxiety around working through an emergency?
- Communications: Has the organization developed effective messaging around emergency protocols?
- Supply Chain: Is the organization aware of and ready to handle changes in material availability and shipping disruptions?
Component 2: Physical Environment
The last thing an organization can afford during an emergency, especially one like an infectious disease outbreak that will undoubtedly cause absences and require new working arrangements, is to be stuck scrambling to make changes after the fact. Managers should be in the habit of observing work sites and facilities on a regular basis to identify potential hazards or arrangements that could become problematic during an emergency. A certified ergonomist or safety expert from outside the organization may provide much-needed perspective.
Focus on these areas:
- Auditing: Are you conducting regular inspections of environments, facilities, and workstations? Have you considered plans for virtual or remote work during an emergency?
- Space planning: How will your organization alter workstation arrangements to allow for distancing? How will you control access to shared spaces?
- Shift flighting: How can you prepare alternative scheduling and rostering to prevent too many employees from being on-site during an emergency?
- Workplace precautions: How do you promote safe behaviors during normal times? How can you transition policies for emergency situations?
- Deep cleaning: Do you have staff or contractors on hand to handle facility cleaning during an outbreak? Are they properly trained for handling emergencies?
Component 3: Active Monitoring
Organizations should be in the habit of continuously observing workspaces during normal times so that they have data on hand to compare with emergency situations. Active monitoring tactics during an emergency should include:
- Testing: Is your organization up-to-speed on the latest testing techniques for disease outbreaks? How will you make tests available to all employees who need them during an emergency?
- Screening: What technologies or tactics can you prepare during normal times that you can quickly deploy at scale during an emergency?
- Community scanning and thresholds: Is your organization equipped with data at the local and global level to determine the risk to your operations?
- Contact tracing: How will you make employees aware of personal risk due to contact with potentially infected persons?
- Resiliency assessments: How will you know if your employees and organization is ready to handle an outbreak before one occurs?
Component 4: Prevention & Sustainability
The best way to handle an emergency is to utilize effective prevention tactics before an outbreak happens. This will help limit the spread and ensure that employees know how to react during an emergency. Factors to consider include:
- Vaccines and treatments: Is your leadership aware of medical interventions that may become necessary during an outbreak? How will you facilitate administration to minimize missed days?
- Ongoing monitoring: Do you have staff committed to monitoring the potential for disease outbreaks at all times?
Component 5: Virtual On-Site Injury Prevention Solutions
It’s essential that safety managers and organizational leadership are aware of the increased injury risks that accompany emergencies such as outbreaks of disease. Illness can have wide-ranging effects on workers’ bodies and capabilities, and the increased stress during an emergency will raise the possibility of non-illness-related injuries. The last thing an organization needs to deal with during an emergency is routine, preventable injuries that will weigh down your bottom line and reduce your available resources for dealing with the actual emergency. Solutions to consider include:
- Live virtual safety training: Continue to reinforce safe behaviors during an emergency with virtual training that minimizes on-site interaction.
- Virtual ergonomic evaluations: Connect employees to ergonomists who can observe the workforce and suggest interventions that factor in changes due to an emergency.
- Work hardening: Return-to-work plans help employees gradually improve their fitness for work following an injury.
- Conditioning and body mechanics: Improve overall worker fitness to help employees deal with heightened stress and productivity demands during an emergency.
- Pain management: Soft-tissue therapy sessions can alleviate pain and reduce dependence on prescription pain medication.
- Mental health and wellness apps: Cost-effective technology solutions can help workers care for their mental health and promote overall wellness so that they are better equipped to safely handle emergency situations.
Conclusion: Be Prepared
Though the COVID-19 pandemic is officially over, everyone from the C-suite to front-line workers must stay ready for future emergencies. It’s essential for organizations to review their preparedness plans on an annual basis—don’t let it sit and become outdated. Employers should be conducting dry runs every year, emulating first-responder practices to ensure that plans are always ready to go. Stay abreast of changes in demographics, technology, and other opportunities to improve emergency readiness that can be incorporated into your plans. Finally, make sure to engage the entire organization with your readiness plans through ongoing education programs.
There’s no substitute for a clear, actionable set of steps that can be scaled across an organization during an emergency. Keep your costs down and continue operations during an outbreak by keeping your plans updated with the latest solutions. DORN can help you review your existing plans, audit your overall readiness, and help develop new plans and training programs to keep your teams engaged and aware of emergency strategies.