Volume 107: Planning for When Things Go Wrong

Normally, when it “snows” in Dallas, it’s just a couple of flurries, and it melts immediately, or it melts after about 12 hours and we’re back to mid-40s or higher the next day.

Not a few weeks ago.

I’m sure you all saw on the news the mess that Texas was in. The coldest temperatures in decades rolled in with tons of snow and ice, and it all hung around for a week. Texas is/was not equipped for this, and the result was terrible.

I’m not brave enough to dive into the politics and logistics of why Texas found itself in such a mess, and they’re not relevant to this discussion. For now, it’s enough to note that it was a mess, and that the one thing we can all agree on is that the response was inadequate for the situation.

But I want to use this thought to talk about how we, as leaders in various businesses, prepare for the worst.

We’ve spent a year dealing with an unprecedented pandemic, so I don’t have to tell you there are some things that fall outside our immediate control, such as weather and acts of nature. All we can control is how we react to them.

Sure, some of this is just keeping a positive attitude, even as it sometimes may seem as if the world is falling apart, but it also means being prepared.

Professionally, we, as leaders of businesses, must have contingency plans for emergency situations as well. But this shouldn’t be news.

Odds are good that your company has a plan for a fire, and that you do training every so often to remind everyone what to do. I’m going to guess that you’ve got a plan in case someone gets caught in a machine or a boiler explodes.

But what about the other things, big or small, that can happen to a facility or company? What if the whole leadership team is stuck somewhere else or gets the flu/COVID? Is your org chart clear enough that the next in line will know to step up?

What happens if a chunk of your hourly or supervisor-level staff is out sick? Do you just shut down? Or do you have a contingency plan for how to run? Are enough people cross trained to pick up the slack?

What can you do to prevent these issues from happening in the first place?

For a lot of facilities, the job of Safety Manager exists purely for this purpose: to prevent foreseeable issues and to lead the charge in dealing with the unforeseeable.

As a leader, you can’t dedicate too much time to preparing for the worst, or you’d never get anything done or make any money. But you also can’t ignore the possibility that these things can happen and be reactive when things happen.

The goal must be to prevent where possible, and to be responsive, not reactive, when things go wrong anyway.
So, what can we do to be prepared?

  1. Identify

If your facility runs with a very lean staff, that’s an area you probably want to have a contingency plan for. And you run a manufacturing operation with large machines, where can people get hurt?

For my small company, our big dangers are the pretty standard ones for Texas: fire, tornado, active shooter (we share a building floor with a bank) and smaller things like internet and power outages that knock our business out.

Figure out what the most common or likely areas of danger/issue are within your company. In addition to your leadership team talking these things over, make sure you ask the guys on the floor, as well. They might see a danger or have an issue that hasn’t made it up the chain of command, and knowing about it could save you down time, employee injuries, and money later.

Once you’ve identified things that could give you problems…

  1. Prevent

As noted, you’re doing this already.

Your facilities have safety programs that are built to deter the biggest potential challenges to your employees and business. You have lock out-tag out procedures, guard rails, and fire extinguishers. You have either a Safety Manager, a Health and Safety Manager, an Environmental, Health and Safety Manager, an HR Manager with Safety responsibility, and/or a Safety Committee of some kind to manage these things and ensure they’re followed.

Now, what about other things that could happen? How can you keep a sanitary environment to stop disease from spreading? Are there any ways to minimize fire danger?

For O&A, prevention is about keeping cords safely tucked away, not bringing candles and other flames into the office, making sure the sprinkler system is inspected periodically and checking the fire extinguisher’s pressure.

We make sure we always have soap, hand sanitizer, tissues, and disinfectant wipes available, and we send sick employees home to curb the spread of illness.

  1. Plan

No matter how much effort you put into prevention, you can’t control everything. So, what do you do when [insert generic disaster] strikes?

For instance, if there’s a tornado, everyone in our office knows the first place to try to get is the building’s basement. If they’re not able to get to the stairs, the bathrooms right next to our office are the next best bet. If there’s a fire, we’ve got a meeting spot on the far side of the parking lot.

As these plans are implemented, who oversees what? Two of the worst possible situations are when no one is steering the ship in a disaster, and when too many people are. If no one is steering the ship, and everyone assumes someone else is taking care of things, the problem will get worse. If everyone is talking, you’re going to get people pulling several different directions.

Whether it’s your normal chain of command, a Safety Manager stepping up, or just first on the scene, you must designate a person to take charge so there is one voice, and everyone is pulling the same direction. This voice also must be someone that can maintain calm in the face of chaos and can inspire calm in others.

  1. Supply

What do you need for these systems to work? Do you have locks for lockout tagout? Do you have fire extinguishers?

Then, it’s not enough to buy the systems once and forget them until they’re needed, you must maintain them. To ensure that this is done, I always suggest assigning someone specifically to do it. In our office, it’s our Director of Operations. In your facility, it’s probably your Safety or EHS Manager.

For instance: Fire extinguishers have expiration dates and should be checked often to make sure the pressure is kept up. A fire extinguisher that has begun to leak and has lost pressure is going to be of no use in an emergency.

  1. Train

The best plan in the world doesn’t work if the people involved don’t know it. Train your people on the safety equipment and contingency plans. Go over the plans often. Run drills.

Everyone needs to know where the closest first aid kit and fire extinguisher is to their office or station.

As noted, it’s important to assign these important tasks to individuals or a few individuals so that they get done.

If one person isn’t assigned, everyone will assume someone else is doing it. Be clear, and make sure these assignments are covered regularly and posted somewhere they can be seen. If the Safety Manager/whoever is out, make sure you know who else would step in and take control so that people know where to turn.

  1. Insure

Workers’ Compensation and General Liability are the ones that jump out to me, but I’d talk to a broker or someone more knowledgeable. These don’t prevent issues from happening, but they can help you address things and make sure your business doesn’t shut down if issues happen.

We can’t prevent or predict every possible disaster, and a person could easily go crazy trying to. But if I’ve learned anything over the past few weeks, it’s the importance of having a contingency plan in place, and being able to respond in a predictable, practical way in a crisis.


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