I'm a catastrophe alarmist with an ulterior motive. No, I'm not trying to extract a consultant contract. And in truth I see risk of flu pandemic to be very low and risk of a terrorist disaster as, well, miniscule. But if you plan for extreme scenarios, your company and your community will benefit today.
Catastrophes have a way of speeding the arrival of the future by making obvious what before were taut, hidden fault lines through work and community. If you don't harvest operating gains from your CAT planning, perhaps you aren't planning creatively enough.
Make it overwhelming. Say that Kansas City is hit by a flu pandemic high up on the World Health Organization scale people use to rank pandemic threat. And assume it is winter and an ice storm has just brought the power and telephone systems to their knees.
I talked about this double whammy with a Kansas City unit of Bayer Healthcare, the Animal Health Division, which employs about 400 workers on-site and 140 sales representatives and veterinarians in the field. Michael Carter runs safety and health. Bob Walker runs communications.
Their CEO was working in Singapore when the SARS epidemic occurred in 2002 and 2003. He told the staff in December 2005 to get a flu pandemic plan together.
Their main concern was employee health. Many would, in a state of primal fear, stay away from work to be with family members. And there would be two or three waves of pandemic over 18 months. Their planning group decided to invest heavily in mitigation tools, knowing that prevention would not be feasible. They bought high quality masks, rubber gloves and devices that read body temperature on skin contact.
Toronto's experience with the SARS outbreak taught the planning team about the absolute need to control communications: a rational response to threat, not denial or panic.
"We developed a trigger response matrix, listing 20 things that could occur globally to locally," Walker told me. This would enable the operating unit to translate a news event, such as a flu occurrence in Vietnam or school closing in Nashville, into a clear set of measures for its Kansas City work force. An ice storm, of course, could wreck havoc on reaching people. Consider the burden on managers locked out of their offices trying to run their business from their homes, with stressed-out communications, and over months.
But also notice how this planning exercise sets up a perch from which thoughtfully to plan routine telecommuting in noncrisis times.
The planning team's next concern was the company's supply chain. A flu pandemic can just as easily knock out suppliers. Should Bayer allocate more funds to building stocks rather than rely on thin, just-in-time inventories? Say, wasn't this already a risk before pandemics were considered?
A risk manager in another company wrote me, "Supply-chain risk is an increasing problem. All big risks affect it--labor strike, blackout, political, natural CAT, war--and many products like backup power supply for computers are made only in China."
To address employee risk and supply-chain risk, Bayer found itself talking with other companies, even competitors, and Kansas City's public health agency, a model for municipal pandemic planning.
The scenarios become so complex that your business' plans need to relate to, and mold, the expectations of your community. Which yields another benefit: greater clarity to one's community role. See what some vigorous planning can do for you.
PETER ROUSMANIERE, a Vermont-based consultant and writer, is the workers' comp columnist for
Risk & Insurance®.
April 1, 2007
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