Would you know how to respond to a major safety incident?

By Paul Stathis
Thursday, 01 October, 2009


A serious safety incident is, without fear of contradiction, a serious crisis. While the primary concern is to minimise the negative impact to injured workers, appropriate measures also need to be put in place to minimise the consequential negative impact to the company and all other stakeholders involved in the incident. While a safety incident is not a welcome experience, a degree of preparedness is essential to mitigate its effects.

No one wants an injury to occur in their workplace, but sadly they do happen. Most companies have crisis plans in place in the event of such incidents, typically outlining what to do to assist the injured workers and how to deal with the regulator’s investigation. But what about the bigger picture - how do you prepare your company to deal with the injured worker’s family, unwanted media exposure, negative shareholder sentiment, staff emotions, etc? These very real consequences must be dealt with successfully if a company is to mitigate the negativity borne by the incident.

According to crisis management consultant Ross Campbell, who has trained thousands of people in preventing and managing corporate crises, it requires a top-level management response to provide leadership across all parts of the company, including HR, legal, public relations and operations, to name a few: “Companies typically need 7-8 senior managers to be involved in running this strategic process. Crisis management is a strategy, not a tactic. It requires preparedness well in advance of any negative event.

“Most companies have safety policies in place as a means to mitigate accidents and injuries. And contained in these documents are usually procedures outlining what to do in the event of an incident.

“However, contrary to what some may think, a manual is not sufficient as a response to a crisis, no matter how comprehensive it may be. People need to have practised their responses; they need to have checklists in place and they need to have response teams. That’s because hard decisions need to be made under considerable stress during a crisis.”

The terms ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’ are often used interchangeably when an incident occurs. Both address the required responses and both are urgent. However, how we respond to the crisis has a far greater impact on the broad, long-term consequences to all of the stakeholders involved in that incident than responding just to the emergency.

Emergency management is the initial tactical response to an emergency, with the singular intent of containing the immediate threat and minimising the negative effects on people and assets.

Crisis management is the overarching strategic response to an event that’s escalating and threatening to have a significantly negative effect on a company’s people and its assets. It is proactive, not reactive. In other words, it’s a predetermined state of readiness in anticipation of a negative event. This requires more than just the emergency response to contain the initial incident. To reiterate Campbell’s comments: a safety manual is not enough. Some companies have a plan in their safety manual, but no checklist. Others may have response teams who aren’t practised to respond appropriately. The issue is being in a position to make decisions while under stress; and that requires a high degree of preparedness - knowing what to do and leading the company to follow well-thought-out and rehearsed instructions. And all of this requires appropriate training across all levels of the company, especially at senior levels.

Campbell adds: “Conventional thinking says that an up-to-date crisis plan gives an organisation the best chance of surviving a disaster. Well it helps, but the real bulwark or protection factor in surviving a crisis is, in fact, having a team who can respond under strong leadership. I can’t emphasise enough how important strong crisis leadership is. We saw that debated in the Victorian bushfires Royal Commission and the Esso Longford gas explosion inquiry. It was also proven during the Beaconsfield Mine disaster. Leadership and a strong team are the recipes for success in dealing with crises.”

From a number of exercises during recent training sessions, Campbell documented comments made by participants. Below are some comments from leaders who identified problems with their early responses to crises:

  • It took too long to get things moving.
  • We needed more information and couldn’t get it.
  • I felt inundated and overwhelmed.
  • We would like to have jump-started the response process. The next time, I want to brief the team with more detail about the way ahead.
  • I should have headed straight for the strategic and not got involved in micro-management and tactical stuff.

“Good learnings by leaders who want to improve their front-line capability and speed up their delivery,” continues Campbell. “Any crisis response - whether labelled as such or ‘business continuity’, ‘emergency planning’ or ‘disaster recovery’ - requires strategic leadership that immediately provides decisive direction.

“Dr R Adams Cowley defined a ‘golden hour’ as the critical decision-making time in managing a medical crisis: ‘There is a golden hour between life and death if you are critically injured - you have less than 60 minutes to survive.’

“This is much the same in crisis response - the ‘golden hour’ for a crisis team represents the opportunity to take control and provide an orderly and efficient transition from normal to emergency conditions. This control can be achieved only if the crisis team leader and support team leaders are skilled in leadership discipline and armed with the authority to make decisions for the entire organisation.

“Crisis leaders, such as police, military and rescue workers, aim to get their situation under control within that first hour. But they’re trained to do that in anticipation of a crisis and are equipped to have everything ready to go. However, business managers are generally not skilled to act in the same way and run the risk of wasting valuable time in that golden hour, just familiarising themselves with the situation, not knowing what’s most important or what to do first.

“During that first hour, people will defer to a strong leader who is visible, provides direction and controls. An experienced leader will set the pace and communicate direction. This earns trust amongst the team and stakeholders affected.

“Leaders themselves often realise they need to gain more experience in order to steer an immediate course in rapid response. Team leadership and effectiveness improves as the leader and his members learn to think together. Shared knowledge of the response, plans, responsibilities, checklists - all combine to produce capability that is the sum of the individual members. And under good leadership, when members participate in critical decisions, bringing to the process breadth of experience, everyone feels less stress. The synergy of team decision-making is positive and significant, producing a more thorough and responsible method of reaching conclusions.

“Crisis leadership is about delegation and the team’s authority to make critical decisions and to commit adequate resources in response to the crisis. This takes serious practise in the form of rehearsal. By running intense leadership simulation exercises, leaders have the opportunity to play out their role of delegation under stressful conditions so the team gains a real-life perception of how it will be in a crisis event. It’s not uncommon for me to bring police and medicos into my training sessions to role-play with company management so that leadership can be qualified well in advance. For example, the first question a policeman asks when they encounter a situation is to ask: ‘Who’s in charge?’ The company needs to sort this out well in advance, as well as establishing how to deal with emergency services such as police, fire brigade and medicos.

“In response to training, people are more conscious of taking action. They can see from TV news reports that there’s no hiding place, so they need to have a plan that’s practical - that will work on the day. Rehearsals also identify gaps. For example, has the receptionist been told what to say in response to enquiries after an incident? Do the guards at the gate have an action checklist? How do you respond to calls from the media? What does the situation look like from a media helicopter? In these situations, the whole image of your company can become exposed.

“In the absence of information, people go to various sources to find out about the consequences of an incident - hospitals, police, ambulances, etc. What have you said to these organisations shortly after an incident, to manage the information that’s going out to the community about your organisation as a result of the incident? Typically, organisations need their HR departments to have several people prepared as interfaces with these entities to get controlled information out to them quickly. This could include press conferences, media releases and liaison with the police media unit.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of strategic leadership simulation and training which tests the inter-relationship between leader and team members. This should not be soaking up of information, but active learning.”

In his training sessions, Campbell stresses a number of essential crisis-leadership steps:

  • Ensure your leadership can be conducted effectively. Have the right people and resources in place - experienced team, room, seating, support, logs.
  • Understand the problem - what is the crisis and where is it going?
  • Brief the team - confirm roles.
  • Understand who else is working with you: emergency services, incident commanders, government - are the lines clear?
  • Lead the team with a clear response strategy:
    • Confirm the response direction
    • Delegate
    • ‘Whip around’ every 30-40 minutes for feedback and response status
  • Take leadership on key ‘people’ issues - you will be judged on this.
  • Encourage early and consistent communication to stakeholders.
  • Direct operational recovery as a parallel-response stream.

“Crisis leadership in the golden hour will rely on leaders who are trained to manage the acute/escalation stage of a crisis,” concludes Campbell. “Leaders must rehearse beyond their comfort zone to control and manage the golden hour.”

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