Recent fires, tsunamis, and flooding have affected people, businesses, and economies – the price of devastation has been high. But, how can we plan for such emergencies? Jon Abbott shares some lessons learned.

The catastrophic events that have, quite literally, shaken the world over the past few years have tested the way governments and organizations deal with emergency situations in the most awful ways imaginable.

The shocking devastation and loss of life as a result of the forest fires in California, the recent tsunamis and floods in Japan and Indonesia, plus continued unrest across the Middle-East have reminded us all that we live an unpredictable and sometimes precarious existence.

All of these can cause not only threats to the safety of those working in the area, but as we saw with the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2013, they can cause a severe degree of disruption to business activities owing to restrictions on travel. We even saw the same threat resulting from a pandemic, where Chinese officials threatened to close all borders? Could we have coped with our senior executives being trapped for an indeterminate period in another country?

By the very nature of these events, they usually occur with little or no warning and their effects are likely to be catastrophic for people and businesses. Just because we can’t predict these events, it doesn’t mean we can’t plan for them. Businesses have to ensure safety is considered at the very heart of all operations. Despite this, some processes fail. It isn’t because they don’t have good management systems in place, they probably do. It has nothing to do with policies and processes, these are often clear and readily available. What causes the problem is the failure to test these systems.

During an emergency, whether it is a global catastrophe or a local incident, people do not always act the way we think they will.

A process may fail because an individual’s instinctive reaction is to help, often disregarding any additional risk that creates. A process may fail because it is not easy to carry out; and, without testing, how would we ever know? Presumably, when it’s tested for real, and fails.

Good leadership

Without clear communication strategies, there can be a failure in good leadership. This is especially true where communication has to cross timezones and territories. But, good leadership is critical at times of extreme duress, and I think we will see that it is the organizations with tried and tested disaster plans that emerge fastest and in better shape.

We feel great sorrow over the deep and lasting damage suffered as a result of a disaster. We also feel admiration and wonder at an organization’s ability to emerge from the turmoil and get back to business. Did you hear about the earthquake that ravaged a Japanese highway, which was torn apart down the middle? It was rebuilt in three days. Great reputations are rebuilt that way. Badly prepared organizations may never recover; and, even those that do, they also carry a heavy reputational burden.

We expect our governments to take overall responsibility for disaster management. Governments, quite rightly, will be more concerned with current dangers and the immediate aftermath of a disaster: the clean-up, the support to society, re-instating the infrastructure. Companies also have huge responsibilities to their employees and to try to ensure the stability of employment and the economy. Employers are an important part of the longer-term recovery and, in partnership with governments, companies play a vital role in the return to normality. So, governments and companies need good plans in place; plans that have been tested and will work well together. Good safety systems help, however they can only be successful if they truly help to protect our assets.

Lessons learned

Natural disasters come with no warning – they can occur anywhere, at any time. In the event of a disaster, will your business have the ability to pick up the pieces and get back to work, or will things grind to a halt? While it isn’t possible to plan for every event, a solid disaster recovery plan can make all the difference. A disaster recovery plan is one of those difficult but necessary aspects of a successful business. With luck, you may never need to rely on your disaster recovery plan, but if you ever do, you’ll be glad that you planned ahead.

The process of drawing up disaster recovery plans will need to address questions of leadership, authority, timeframes, deliverables and more. As a guide, you should seek to address the following:

  1. Corporate buy-in, and commitment at all levels
  2. Sponsorship from key stakeholders
  3. Power and authority within regions and divisions
  4. Appropriate resources
  5. Timeframes for responses
  6. Realistic frameworks for what needs to be done
  7. Schedule of deliverables

As an addendum to this, I thought I’d share a few points on what a disaster recovery plan would generally cover. It will need to be amended, contextually, from organization to organization, but these questions will give a general rule of thumb for creating such a plan.

  1. How you organize yourself during disasters
  2. How your organization responds to an incident
  3. How you manage what you do from the first hour to the 48th hour
  4. How you communicate with any external audience
  5. Staff and 3rd party contact details
  6. Generic roles and responsibilities

I think that our experience and the experiences of our customers can prepare people and organizations for the unexpected; to help limit damage, speed up recovery and avoid the reputational risk of not being prepared.

Click here for another article about disaster recovery plans.


Jon Abbott, Director at Cardinus Risk Management, has more than 15 years’ experience in ergonomics, safety, and occupational health. Over that period, he has worked with a wide variety of organizations in the private and public sectors by providing a full range of risk management solutions including software, e-learning, and consultancy.

Jon was instrumental in establishing Cardinus operations in America and Holland and is currently responsible for global strategy. Jon feels passionate about the health and well-being of young people and he believes more must be done to protect the workforce of the future. This drove him to set up Healthy Working MOVE in 2013, an award-winning ergonomics program for children.


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