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Communicating in Crisis: The Role of the EHS Practitioner

Scott Gaddis

It’s a safe assumption that you will face a situation at some point, either manmade or natural, in which the need for effective crisis communication is likely.        

Crisis communication for the EHS practitioner is a necessary skill to master and should be part of your skills toolbox. Whether you are a staff-level specialist, leading a program or working within a defined incident command system, there is a need to be able to actively listen, gather and analyze information and deliver credible communications in high-stress situations. 

Granted, and I would venture a guess that this is true for most of us, there are organizational policies that dictate specifically who speaks in crisis and who does not. At least for me - and for most of my career it was not me that spoke externally to the public on behalf of my organization - I still had situations where I led communications internally with employees, senior leaders and governmental agencies, as well as prepared others to speak on behalf of the organization. 

Communicating in crisis and doing it in a way that is effective is a challenge. When such an event occurs, employees almost immediately are thrust into an abyss of information black-out and rampant rumors begin spreading. Leaders are scrambling to meet behind closed doors and corporate offices are being called for support. This all is being performed in conjunction with the public, which believes it has a right to know everything that’s happened behind your property line. Added to this, there’s a smartphone in almost every pocket and a healthy appetite among the public to be the first to post to social media, so waiting too long to communicate effectively and the story gets written for you, and it usually is not the one you want to tell.  

Ironically, as I wrote this, I glanced at a notification via a newsfeed on one of my social media accounts and saw an update to a workplace fatality that occurred just a day ago in a manufacturing plant about an hour from my office. The news update details that a couple of employees from the plant were found who were willing to share details anonymously about the event. 

The heading on the news release reads, “Fellow employees of the man who died in (said company) accident say his death could’ve been prevented.” It then goes on to state that employees at the factory had filed numerous complaints about the machine and the faulty safety features before the accident. There’s a song lyric that comes to my mind - “I wish I could turn back time” - and while there’s little guarantee someone can stop this type of news leaking out, there are elements in how we manage the organization that can help. 

Communication and the Role of EHS

The EHS practitioner is likely to work along several paths in dealing with and communicating in a crisis.  In an emergency, the practitioner has multiple audiences that will need to be informed including employees, senior management and government agencies. The media and the public also are a consideration, but usually with the idea of supporting that activity with data that will be shared externally by others.    

It is imperative to gather as much information as you can about what happened. Taking for granted that people have been safely removed from the danger, the practitioner will need to learn and understand quickly what has occurred, when and where the event happened and any early indications of loss magnitude and the potential of further loss if the crisis event continues.

A few initial steps to consider:

  • Alert the emergency response team.
  • Determine how significant the exposure is and how it affects the organization, the public or other businesses.
  • Gain an understanding of the loss type(s). (e.g., spill, injury, fire,etc.)
  • Call for external emergency services if deemed necessary.
  • Secure the scene and control potential subsequent loss events if possible. 
  • Notice and record present conditions at the scene.
  • Determine who the witnesses are and debrief them as quickly as possible.
  • Preserve as much physical evidence as much as possible. If the event is ongoing, use a camera to record if possible before it changes or is lost.
  • Post personnel at the event site to restrict entry to unauthorized personnel.   
  • Enact the crisis management plan and establish a command center if needed.

 

While there are no absolutes in dealing with internal communications since every organization is different, it’s a safe bet that the EHS practitioner may be called upon to deliver information or will be integral in preparation of any internal communication. Why? Because the practitioner is likely the person on the management team who best understands the crisis and the crisis management plan, has knowledge of the incident command structure and already has begun assembling information that will be used by others. 

Communicating to Employees

First and foremost, it is paramount that the EHS practitioner and the management team be as upfront and honest as possible with employees. This does not mean the organization is admitting fault or taking the blame, but is communicating what is known as truth at the time the crisis is occurring. Unless employees were front row center as the crisis unfolded, it’s a safe bet that only versions of the truth are being shared with various fabrications of the facts crafting a new storyline as time ticks away and ripples through the workforce. 

Consider the following:

  • Be upfront and truthful with information that you know. Honesty is essential to credibility. In times of crisis, one of the worst things you can do is not be honest.
  • If there is information that is sensitive or confidential or if you cannot discuss something, say it rather than leaving the workforce wondering or guessing that information is being hidden.
  • Address perceptions. The implications of a crisis are directly associated with the observations of your workforce. Dissolve as many misconceptions as possible.
  • Allow employees to complain. It is imperative to understand how people feel and why. Some types of crisis events create more uncertainty than others, and it’s doubtful they will accept communication unless you are open to receive theirs.
  • Share with the workforce how they will receive additional updates and how often updates will be conducted. This becomes more important if the crisis interrupts things like their work schedule.
  • Share with the workforce what information will be shared with the media and the public and how it will be delivered.

 

Lastly, treat your employees as stakeholders in your organization, because they have an interest in the organization and are impacted by the outcome of the crisis event. At the end of your crisis communication meetings, discuss the control of information regarding outlets like social media, casual conversations with friends, neighbors and especially calls from the news for comment. Controlling information is incredibly difficult, so instead of denying it can and does take place, build an understanding that it is best that we have one voice and direct the workforce to steer the people who are asking for information to the spokesperson for the organization.

To ward off probable misinformation, detail how to handle those seeking information and equip the workforce with the appropriate facts regarding the crisis event and how to best respond if they find themselves in a situation where they are being asked to share information. Employees will be asked questions, and it is the role of the management team to equip them with the right words to use in these situations. 

Preparing the PIO for Communication

The EHS practitioner likely will lead or be a big part of gathering data and producing information that will be used for communications with the public, media sources and officials affected by the crisis. In most organizations, there is a role defined as public information officer (PIO), and while various titles may be used organizationally, it is this person who serves as the public face for the organization. The PIO decides what to communicate, how much information is released and when updates are warranted. 

The PIO could cover communications to:

  • Victims and families affected by the crisis event
  • Emergency services (e.g., fire, rescue, hazmat)
  • General public
  • Affected geographical locations
  • Surrounded businesses
  • Community leaders
  • Media
  • Governmental agencies
  • Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
  • Response and recovery organizations (e.g., urban search and rescue)
  • Utilities
  • Emergency response

 

As the EHS practitioner, your objective is to support the PIO with information detailing what has occurred and with clear and concise supporting data that is organized in a logical order. The public information officer will need to understand as much information about the crisis event as practical, and will need it quickly, but not so soon that facts are missed or misrepresented. 

Generally, there is a need for as much detail as possible: the event details and how the event has affected the organization internally; any actions that are warranted to be taken by the public, businesses or industries within the area of concern; and what steps are being made to return the organization to normal.

Although every crisis event is different, I have created a checklist with some common information you might be asked to assembled for the PIO. (Click on the image below to download.)

Click link in "Attachments" area below.

Depending on the magnitude of the crisis, the role of the EHS practitioner in many cases is not only to gather and report information but to anticipate what information will be asked of the PIO and what probable next steps can be expected as the event unfolds. Using your legacy knowledge as an EHS practitioner, your experience is paramount in anticipating possible questions that could be asked and then supplying the PIO with credible answers that can be communicated effectively.

Communicating with Government Agencies

There are no “hard and fast” rules for the EHS practitioner in reporting a crisis event to government agencies unless it’s supported by regulations from the specific agency that has jurisdictional authority over your operation. For instance, in the United States, an environmental emergency is reportable to the Environmental Protection Agency when there’s a threat that reaches a threshold limit. Likewise, OSHA has similar protocols when fatal or specifically defined injuries occur. It is vital that you understand the reporting requirements for all government agencies that have jurisdiction over your operation and follow their reporting requirements.

What is more likely is that depending on the specific nature of the incident, various state agencies could be involved because no single agency or emergency response entity alone can handle the crisis. For example, large-scale emergencies may require a state emergency management agency to coordinate the event by establishing what commonly is referred to as an emergency operations center (EOC) This is done in the effort to support multiple branches of the emergency response efforts. If it reaches this level, there will be parallel activities shared between your internal team as well as local, regional, state and - at times - federal response teams.

Planning, Preparation and Training

How an organization handles a crisis - and the communications of such events - cannot be left to chance. Planning, preparation and training are just a few of the key attributes in successfully managing in a way that benefits you as a practitioner and the organization you represent.  

Personally, and with few exceptions, I always was totally surprised when a crisis event happened. Some were small events, others quite large and complex, but most were very unexpected.

It is safe to say that at some point, most of us will face a crisis and it’s improbable that we can eliminate or rid every inherent risk in the workplace. An effective crisis management plan with preparation, along with the clearly defined roles and responsibilities and practical training ensures the best success. An ounce of prevention is surely worth a pound of cure, and for the EHS practitioner, it’s the work at the front end that limits a lot of fixing afterward.

About the Author: Scott Gaddis is Vice President, Global Practice Leader, Safety and Health at Intelex Technologies. He has over 25 years in EHS leadership experience in heavy manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and packaging industries. Before joining Intelex, Scott served as Vice President of EHS for Coveris High Performance Packaging, was Executive Director of EHS at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and was Global Leader for Occupational Safety and Health at Kimberly-Clark Corp.

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March 01, 2019 @ 09:38 AM EST Manufacturing, Chemical, Energy - Oil and Gas, Construction Environment, Health & Safety

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