Dealing with catastrophe Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002

Robert Thompson walked into the small manufacturing plant and was amazed.

“This company did some very, very technical types of manufacturing,” says Thompson, COO of Complient Services Group, an organization that provides solutions to workplace compliance issues. “This was a beautiful, pristine, gorgeous facility. You’d walk in there and you’d think it was the safest place in the world.”

It wasn’t. An audit by a Complient safety inspectors revealed serious OSHA violations, not the least of which was a lack of an updated emergency preparedness plan, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement.

“There are all kinds of emergencies,” Thompson says. “But there are four major categories: weather, nonweather, fire and medical emergency. The types of emergencies are almost unlimited. You can’t be perfect, but you need a prudent and reasonable system for your employees to prevent injuries.”

But in the normal course of a business day, many people take basic safety issue for granted, focusing instead on larger issues, such as whether noxious fumes are escaping in the plant or whether safety rails are properly secured.

“People, in many instances, think that they’re complying with OSHA by posting something on the bulletin board or making sure that they’ve got a written document somewhere, or maybe they’ve shown a safety training videotape,” Thompson says. “All those are elements of a program, but people really should think in terms of having an effective program. And having an effective program is getting a perspective and understanding all the things that you’re required to do and understand how it fits your workplace.”

Every preparedness plan must incorporate four components — a written preparedness program; an employee alarm system to alert employees in the event of an emergency; identification of the types of evacuation used in an emergency; and the training of a sufficient number of persons to assist in safe and orderly evacuation.

This was missing at the manufacturing plant.

“In order to make these little tiny parts out of metal, they had to use a lot of very sophisticated machinery to do it,” Thompson says. “And some of the machinery that they had was very high quality machinery that had been manufactured maybe 40 years ago. These machines, even though they ran well and they did what they were supposed to do, didn’t have some of the safety (devices) on them. They weren’t required 40 years ago.”

There were no shields to protect fingers, hair or clothing from getting caught in spinning cogs or rotating drive belts.

The company had other problems as well. As the business grew, its electrical needs increased. Instead of laying the proper conduits and grounded receptacles, it had simply run heavy-duty extension cords.

It was one of those “things that you learned when you were a kid,” Thompson says. “You’re not supposed to put 15 plugs in an outlet. It will overheat and blow up and potentially cause a fire. It had become so common that they were doing this that they really didn’t notice it anymore.”

That attitude is not unusual, he says.

“It requires a lot of discipline and it requires constant vigilance to ensure a safe workplace,” Thompson warns. “And in some cases, it isn’t high on the list, because people are busy doing other things or distracted. Somebody has to be responsible for safety in the workplace and you want to get that responsibility down to every employee.

“You want everybody to understand that management is concerned about safety in the workplace. And you want the employees to understand that management cares and wants them to care about safety in the workplace.”

If that manufacturing plant did have an emergency, even a minor one, it wouldn’t have been prepared.

“They had a first aid kit,” Thompson recalls. “And there were like three Band Aids, some adhesive tape and a tube of ointment that had been expired for two years. Did they do that because they were mean, bad people? No. They used up the stuff and it wasn’t somebody’s job to go take care of the first aid kit.

“It’s not going to do you any good if somebody slices their hand. What are you going to do? Wrap a dirty rag around it?”

There are other considerations that affect the health of employees, but most people don’t think about the consequences.

“If something bad happens in the workplace, it’s not only going to injure somebody, or perhaps that person will lose their life; what’s going to happen is that it’s going to lower morale, it’s going to lower productivity and it’s going to raise insurance costs,” Thompson says. “There are lots of other things that you don’t really think about. If you have an effective program, people feel that they’ve been trained well, that management cares, and if something does happen and it’s responded to in the appropriate way, they’re going to think, ‘Hey this is great. We did the right thing.’

“People want to do the right thing.”

Thompson suggests that companies bring in a safety expert to complete an audit of the facilities, both internally and externally. It’s important to know not only what hazards your employees face in your workplace, but hazards your neighbors may pose, as well, that might have an effect your operations.

“It’s a real easy thing to not be aware,” Thompson says. “But not being aware isn’t an excuse, particularly if something happens and people don’t respond to it properly.”

How to reach: Complient Service Group, (440) 498-8800

Daniel G. Jacobs ( is senior editor of SBN.