Future Focus

Disaster Readiness

By Jennifer Schramm Nov 1, 2005

HR Magazine, November 2005

Plans for coping with calamities should incorporate workforce demographics.

Hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast this year underscored—tragically, in many instances—the urgent need for communities, businesses and individuals to be prepared for disasters.

Preparedness, however, encompasses more than bracing for natural events such as hurricanes and tornadoes. It involves even more than making plans, as many employers have been doing, to survive arguably the gravest external threat of all—terrorism.

Employers’ disaster preparedness plans will increasingly reflect other influences, including changes in workforce demographics, and HR will have a central role in seeing that the changes are reflected in those plans.

As the workforce ages, for example, employees will face increased risks of disabling conditions. In turn, site evacuation and other disaster recovery procedures may have to give more attention to disabled employees.

Most organizations have procedures and equipment for assisting disabled individuals during emergencies, according to the 2005 Disaster Preparedness Survey, released recently by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). But such provisions may become broader and more sophisticated as the number of employees needing them in- creases.

Another demographic factor that may play a role in disaster preparedness is language. Studies have shown that Latino workers are at greater risk than others of being injured on the job. It may be because they account for a disproportionate share of workers in high-risk occupations. But it could also be tied to language problems when communicating safety procedures to workers who speak little or no English.

Determining the most appropriate methods of communication will likely be HR’s responsibility.

Communicating with employees on disaster issues and other safety topics will be necessary also because of the growing importance employees are placing on feeling safe in the workplace. In SHRM’s 2005 Job Satisfaction Survey Report, “feeling safe” was the No. 1 determinant of job satisfaction for workers 56 and older and, as in previous surveys, was one of the top five determinants for both male and female employees regardless of age.

HR’s efforts in showing that safety receives major attention, not only day after day but also in disaster preparedness planning, can help improve employee job satisfaction overall.

Although it’s impossible to know what types of disasters will occur in coming years, HR can show leadership by becoming knowledgeable on how charac- teristics that will gain prominence in the workplace of the future will influence the ways in which employers and employees are able to respond to disasters.

Jennifer Schramm is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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