HR Professionals, Staffs in Japan Urged to Shelter in Place

By Aliah D. Wright Mar 16, 2011

HR professionals living and working near disaster-ridden sections of Japan are largely sheltering in place and urging employees to do the same, one HR executive told SHRM Online, days after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a tsunami devastated Japan and a series of explosions at a nuclear power plant north of Tokyo raised fears of greater radiation threat.

Reached via e-mail March 15, 2011, about midnight local time, Jun Kabigting, who heads the 450-member Japan HR Society in Tokyo, said many HR professionals have urged their staffs to shelter in place because of rolling blackouts, lack of public transportation and the threat of radiation poisoning.

“We just experienced another strong aftershock (6.0 magnitude) around 10:30 p.m. [local time],” he said via e-mail. That aftershock’s epicenter was in Shizuoka, Japan, which is closer to Tokyo than the quake that struck Sendai, along the northeastern Japanese coast March 11, 2011, killing thousands. Thousands more have simply vanished.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan took to the airwaves advising people to “remain indoors at home or at your offices” because radiation levels were extraordinarily high in some areas, but NPR reported that many people were disregarding that warning and fleeing areas near a disabled nuclear power plant. News services reported that thousands of expatriate employees were leaving the country as well.

A series of explosions and a fire erupted at the earthquake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant 154 miles north of Tokyo March 14. Embassies across Japan urged employers to evacuate staff in Tokyo. Citizens, too, were told to leave, but transportation options were restricted. Gasoline was in particularly short supply north of Tokyo.

“As far as I know, the only evacuation order issued by the government is for people living within the 30 kilometers radius from the nuclear power plant melting down in Fukushima, which is 240 kilometers north of Tokyo,” Kabigting said. “There was some radiation fallout in the Tokyo area later in the day [March 14], but according to tests conducted the highest level of radiation measured in the Tokyo area is half of what one would get if she or he were getting a chest X-ray.”

Businesses Prepare

Because Japan is susceptible to earthquakes, the country makes preparations for such disasters.

According to Lisbeth Claus, a professor of global HR at Willamette University, Yuki Bank took such steps with great success. The bank has 100 branches across Japan—some located in the seismically active areas of Sendai. It has a practice of making every bank employee register with their emergency text messaging system just in case of a disaster.

However, the system did not work as efficiently as planned because mobile phone service was down for a period following the quake and some employees had changed their text and e-mail addresses (Japanese cell phones have the same text and e-mail addresses). Even so, the bank was able to reach all of its employees within two hours, and many employees biked or walked to work March 14 after the quake in devastated areas.

“Implementing an ‘I’m Okay’ policy and having an effective communication system are just [some] of the several steps that a company can take to assume its duty of care responsibilities,” Claus said.

But this is a classic example of how a “very simple technological tool … doesn’t work optimally because people do not comply with policy,” she said. “That’s the real HR lesson. People are lax.”

Reached just after the earthquake struck, Ikue Komine, manager, HRD, Learning and Training Business Unit at the Japan Management Association in Tokyo, told SHRM Online via e-mail that her organization has always taken steps to prepare employees for natural disasters by providing them emergency rations, a helmet and maps. Like in many other organizations across the earthquake-prone country, disaster drills are held once a year. “In Japan, September first is the day of disaster prevention,” the Society for Human Resource Management member said.

Kabigting added that the radiation fallout so far was not “as bad as the one in Chernobyl in 1986 [in the Ukraine] or the one in Three Mile Island in 1979 [in Pennsylvania]. However, the government is not downplaying this latest incident and doing their best to address the situation. They have also already asked for help from international nuclear experts in the U.S., France, and other countries,” he said.

Avoiding the Worst

Alex Puig, regional security director for the Americas for International SOS, agreed that this nuclear incident has not turned out to be as bad as the aforementioned ones. The international security services firm based in Trevose, Pa., retrieves employees from areas affected by war, civil unrest and natural disasters and to date has moved about “100 plus” people from Japan.

“There’s a lot of comparison between Fukushima to Chernobyl. It’s apples and oranges,”

Puig said in a telephone interview. “The chance of a Chernobyl-like explosion and fallout is very far removed simply because of the way the reactors are designed.”

People, he said, shouldn’t panic.

“If they are in the vicinity of the affected area, they should naturally be moving away from it,” Puig added. “If they’re in a place like Tokyo where they are hundreds of miles away but still within the range of a catastrophic disaster they should have plans in place to move.”

While Puig added that some companies are moving nonessential employees out of the Sendai area to “safer locations,” sheltering in place “is the right advice.”

Members of the Japan HR Society were doing just that.

Many have implemented work-at-home arrangements for their staffs “for the rest of this week, primarily for safety reasons, but also because there were rotating blackouts and intermittent train schedules because there is not enough power being supplied to Tokyo because of the Fukushima incident,” Kabigting said.

“Some have temporarily transferred their critical tasks to their other offices outside of Tokyo as a business continuity measure. For companies with manufacturing facilities, most of them have suspended operations ‘until further notice’—again because of the lack of power and some logistical issues since the transportation system is still not fully operational,” Kabigting said.

Social Media Sites Help

Social media sites and the Internet have proven to be an excellent communication tool for some of the employers in Japan.

“We created a Facebook group for co-workers to share information, since Facebook, Twitter and Skype have been working amazingly well,” Renee Kida, an HR manager with Ikea Japan in Tokyo, told SHRM Online via e-mail. “In three days the Facebook group grew from 80 co-workers to over 400 co-workers. Phone service has returned, but we still have times when we can’t get through and Facebook or e-mail is still much more reliable. The Internet has been a sanity saver.”

Kida reported that the situation has improved since the day of the quake and tsunami. Still, the reports of the conditions at the Fukushima nuclear plant and continuing aftershocks were keeping people on edge. She said that people need to remain calm and think about how to provide support and aid to workers in Japan.

“With each new shake or nuclear plant news, more people lose their resolve and decide to leave and to go overseas or head down south,” she said. “I have received several panicked calls from overseas telling me to run, which really freaked me out. I wish overseas would be more calm in their support of us. Panic is contagious and actually doesn’t help anyone.”

Japan HR Resources

The Japan HR Society launched a special section on its website called the JHRS Quake Center 2011 “to serve as a resource for our members and the general public to help them manage through this crisis,” Kabigting said. The center consists of an HR Help Line; an earthquake message board; a “person finder” and other downloadable resources.

“I have had a rough couple of days … lots of damage to my apartment,” Leslie Taylor wrote on the board March 12. “Just digging out from under the glass,” she continued. “[It’s] really important that we pull together and support each other now.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Staff writer Bill Leonard contributed to this report.

Related articles:

HR Professionals in Japan Shift to Emergency Mode; SHRM Global HR Discipline, March 2011

Safety Experts Emphasize Earthquake, Tsunami Preparedness; SHRM Safety and Security Discipline; March 2011


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