A powerful 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, offered an unfortunate reminder that disaster awareness and preparedness is critical for businesses around the world.
Following Japan’s earthquake, tsunami warnings were issued for New Zealand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and portions of U.S. coastal areas in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which serves members in Japan, issued a statement March 11 on the disaster. “The Society for Human Resource Management extends its sincerest sympathies to the people of Japan during this tragic and difficult time,” said Henry G. (Hank) Jackson, interim president and CEO, speaking on behalf of SHRM’s more than 250,000 members in 140 countries. “SHRM stands ready to support its members and the HR community in Japan, which will play a critical role in dealing with the many workplace issues that result from this widespread disaster.”
While initial news reports out of Japan and other Pacific nations were sketchy immediately after the quake and tsunami struck, the need for preparedness remained top of mind for many HR professionals in other parts of the world, especially in New Zealand. In fact, the recent earthquake there could be related.
"This latest [quake] in Japan was almost definitely related to the [6.3-magnitude Christchurch] quake in New Zealand," said Brian Evans, professor at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.
New Zealand has some of the best building standards in the world, according to SHRM member John Duncan, owner of Platform Consulting in Christchurch, which is important because the country was rocked by earthquakes in September 2010, December 2010 and February 2011. New Zealand’s “initial quake on September 4, 2010, was 7.0 magnitude, and there were no deaths and only a couple of injuries,” Duncan wrote via e-mail. “This, in some ways, was due to its 4 a.m. timing, but also because of building codes.
“The death toll in the recent quake [in Christchurch] has now exceeded 160 people, but I think it would have been considerably worse if it weren’t for the quality of the buildings.”
Duncan said Platform Consulting prepares for earthquakes, as well as other natural disasters and emergencies, by keeping a 10-gallon supply of drinking water, sufficient amounts of food and emergency blankets to meet staff needs for three to four days. Additionally, the consulting firm provides backup mobile phones and a network cloud for Internet data.
“From my experiences, most businesses I work with [in New Zealand] are medium-size and above, and all have risk management and disaster recovery plans,” Duncan wrote via e-mail. “Since the Sept. 4, 2010, earthquake, Platform Consulting has business interruption insurance.”
The Christchurch earthquakes did not occur during business hours, Duncan said, which minimized its impact on the company's employees. Yet, public safety and security remains the No. 1 priority as the deconstruction and demolition of earthquake-damaged buildings in Christchurch’s central business district moves ahead.
Planning Is Crucial
Companies around the world need to be prepared for an earthquake and tsunamis like the one experienced in Japan.
Ready, a public service advertising campaign that educates Americans about natural and man-made disasters, advises people on its Ready.gov website to prepare for the unpredictable nature of earthquakes by:
Maintaining an emergency supply kit, with items such as nonperishable food, water, a battery-powered radio, a flashlight, extra batteries and a first-aid kit.
Devising a plan on how to contact other people.
Designating a rendezvous point.
The Ready.gov site says a company can protect its working space from possible earthquake damage by:
Fastening shelves securely onto walls.
Storing breakable items and heavy objects on low-lying shelves.
Moving heavy items, like pictures and mirrors, away from where people sit.
Repairing defective electrical wiring and leaky gas connections, as they are potential fire risks.
Bracing overhead light fixtures.
Bolting water heaters to the floor.
Repairing any deep cracks in ceilings or foundations.
Storing and securing flammable products in closed cabinets or on bottom shelves.
QuakeSmart, a subsidiary of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), distributes information to businesses in places where earthquakes are likely to occur. It advises businesses on the QuakeSmart website to:
Meet with local code officials to discuss submittals, permits, notices or inspections of office buildings.
Coordinate with building owners and fellow tenants about earthquake emergency plans.
Discuss the building structure with an office complex owner.
Devise solutions for office content and furnishings in case they are damaged.
It is important for employers to have an emergency evacuation plan to ensure its employees’ safety. Employees must be prepared to follow the plan.
If a powerful earthquake does strike during hours of operation, federal officials advise workers to:
Drop to the ground, and take cover by crouching under a sturdy table.
Hold on to a piece of furniture until the shaking stops.
Cover face and head with your arms if a table or desk is not near, and crouch in an inside corner of a building.
Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors and walls, as well as anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures and furniture.
Stay still until the shaking stops. Research has shown that most injuries occur when people attempt to move inside a building or try to leave.
Stay off of elevators.
Tsunamis are large ocean waves generated by major earthquakes beneath the ocean floor or by landslides into the ocean. The tsunami danger period can continue for many hours after a major earthquake.
Officials advise those who might be in a tsunami’s path to:
Turn on a radio to find out if there is a tsunami warning.
Move inland to higher ground immediately, and stay there. Do not assume that the danger is over after one wave. During past tsunamis, people survived the first wave and returned to homes and businesses only to be trapped and killed by later, sometimes larger, waves.
Catherine Skrzypinski is an online writer/editor for SHRM.