HR’s Role in Natural Disasters

fire grass spring

Is HR’s disaster planning a disaster?

Whenever we see a natural disaster in the news, such as ice storms on the east coast of Canada, the forest fires of Fort McMurry or the earthquakes in Italy, we immediately think of the disaster victims. This is a natural human response. Then we think about the rescue workers; but we never think about an HR department.

HR has to turn its head around and start to think proactively about disaster planning and crisis management. There is always a potential natural disaster that may affect your company or your employees. How would your HR department respond? What do you have in place to address a natural disaster in your workplace?

Most companies have emergency plans for fire and evacuation, but not about how to run a business during a natural disaster. A disaster plan answers questions like the following

  • What are your expectations of your employees?
  • What resources do you have in place to support your organization to continue to operate?

All organizations should have a complete risk assessment to identify which are the potential natural disaster which may occur in their geographical area, but what is also needed is a business impact analysis.

Click here to read more on what it means to do a business impact analysis.

A business impact analysis helps the organization plan to manage business interruptions due to a natural disaster. HR departments have to:

  • Ensure staff are accounted for
  • Ensure available staff are deployed where necessary
  • Updating employees on emergency status
  • Handling disruptions in employee wages
  • Creating and sending communication to existing employees
  • Documentation of wages of non-routine work
  • Assisting in developing temporary locations of the workplace
  • Temporary or new schedules

Obliviously, the above is nowhere near a complete or exhaustive list but it does the job to get you to think about the complexities of a natural disaster on HR operations. Maybe it is time for HR departments to take Gary Anderson’s words to heart and realize, “HR is critical to an effective emergency response plan.”

HR departments must ensure they take a proactive leadership role in disaster planning and risk mitigation.

Discussion Question

  1. Pick a recent natural disaster. Imagine that your organization is a business in that geographical area. Develop a business impact analysis for your HR department that you would be presenting to your VP of HR as part of the emergency management plan debrief.

Tools for Mental Health Assessment

Spelling out words related to mental health
Lucian Milasan/Shutterstock

It is an emerging fact that one in five Canadians struggles with mental health issues on a daily basis.

This individual struggle has an impact in the workplace. It may show itself through high absenteeism rates, inter-personal conflicts and communication breakdowns. While we have seen an increase in social media campaigns such as the Bell ‘Let’s Talk’ initiative, matters related to mental health are not dealt with well, or at all, in many Canadian workplaces.

Many employers do not know where to start or what tools to use in order to focus on improving employee mental health initiatives.

In response to this need, SunLife Financial, a Canadian insurance and group health benefits provider, has developed a digital mental-health assessment tool for use in Canadian workplaces.

Click here to read the SunLife announcement about their new mental health assessment tool.

Click here to read about how the tool is being implemented in the City of Mississauga.

It is interesting to note that the City of Mississauga launched the tool as part of an organizational mental health strategy. It appears that this strategy includes or follows the steps of hazard recognition (first responders deal with high stress situations every day); risk assessment (implementation of mental health assessment tool); and implementation of controls (training methodologies and supports put into place to reduce mental health risks for workers).

From a health and safety perspective, most workplaces already have an understanding of the steps needed to reduce or eliminate physical workplace hazards. This new type of assessment tool, as provided by SunLife Financial, perhaps will help make the transition a little bit easier to establishing an equal emphasis on reducing and preventing psycho-social hazards that impact employee mental health.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think employers in Canada do not have workplace mental health strategies in place?
  2. How could a mental health assessment tool assist employees in your current workplace?
  3. What types of strategies do you think could be implemented to assist employees who are coping with mental health issues in the workplace?


Risky Business

Hand stopping dominos

In our Health and Safety studies, we focus heavily on the systematic need to understand the links between hazard recognition, risk assessment, and controls. Each of these three elements must be in place in order to ensure a safe workplace for our colleagues. Of these three, risk assessment may be the most challenging to manage as it is based on degrees of probability.


To use a very simple example, when one sees a worker attempting to climb up a ladder that is not secured, the risk-related question is, what are the chances that the worker will fall off that ladder? As the probability, and therefore the risk, is high we must take action by controlling the situation and preventing the worker from going up the ladder until it has been properly secured.

When this happens, the intervention is not always perceived by the worker as necessary or even helpful. Often the person providing intervention is viewed as being overly dramatic, rigid and controlling. When that person is the Human Resources practitioner, their professional responsibility lies in preventative intervention based on the best of intentions and sound practices to ensure employee protection.

Are Human Resources professionals who work in the field of Health and Safety overly cautious and highly risk averse? Based on a recent psychological study published by Geoff Trickey of the UK, it seems that there might be some merit to those claims.

Click here to read the article.

Rather than viewing the tendency for risk aversion by Human Resources professionals from a negative perspective, the author characterizes this tendency in a positive way, as one that is prudent. The prudent risk type is one that is “systematic, orthodox and detailed.” The HR professional with a high tendency for prudence relies on clarity and order. This helps to reduce organizational risk. It seems that our ability to focus on details and apply an organized, systemic approach is essential to promoting a culture of health and safety in the workplace.

Let prudence prevail!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you characterize your own approach to taking risks?
  2. From a Human Resources perspective, how do you rate your own psychological characteristics against the author’s findings?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with the characteristics and tendencies that the author provides? Why?

Debriefing after an Emergency

Diverse Business People on a Meeting

Learning from an Emergency plan gone bad.

Professor Amy C. Edmondson in her Harvard Business Review (HRB) article “Strategies for Learning from Failure” talks about strategies to improve when things go wrong; usually when a workplace emergency occurs something went wrong well before it happened.

How can we truly learn from emergency plans that do not unfold the way we expected them to?

Well there should always be a formal debrief after a workplace emergency, but what is the value of a formal debrief or root cause analysis if the organization has a culture that refuses to learn from failure. Below is a quick summary of Professor Edmondson’s ideas on how to truly learn for workplace failures.

Click here to watch the video clip and also to read the article by Professor Edmonson.

Here are her main points:

  1. The blame game – don’t play it
  2. Overcome the false dichotomy – we all state we want to get to the root cause of the problem, but we really fear the potential truth
  3. Learn the skill of how to debrief a failure
  4. Embrace early warning analysis of failure
  5. You can always learn from big or small emergencies
  6. Create an environment where people are free to speak, and frame the work accurately
  7. Have a formal control system to learn from emergencies

By implementing these ideas or strategies an organization will develop risk management behaviours such as: hazard reporting, investigating near misses before they become an emergency, and learning to prevent workplace emergencies from happening.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe this statement to be true “most organizations state they want to learn from mistakes, but few truly do?” If you believe it to be true, explain why? If you don’t why?
  2. Research a recent workplace emergency, practice using the 7 steps above a write up an action plan to prevent the workplace emergency.



The Tsunami of Security Issues!

Employee Security: How Far should you go? Are you doing enough?

business man stop violence concept background

Click here to read the article on employee security.

Concerns regarding employee security have been building for years since Lori Dupont’s murder in her Ontario Workplace.

 Click here to read an article about this case.

Violence in the workplace legislation such as Bill 168 have been implemented, and now there is greater emphasizes on the courts to be less tolerant of employers who do not meet their minimal workplace security legal obligations.

Click here to read the legislation Bill 168.

All employers must take warning, the courts are giving clear direction on how far reaching an employers’ obligations is in for the prevention of violence in the workplace. The Ministry of Labour laid five charges against an Ontario mental health centre in relation to the security and the prevention of violence in the workplace and a ruling has been rendered:

“A mental health centre must install a new electronic alarm system at its site as well as provide improved employee training and hire properly trained security personnel who will be present 24/7.”

What the Union is saying about this case:

“For the first time in Ontario history, a quasi-judicial body has confirmed that security personnel have a role to play on a health care team,” he said. “This is an extremely significant conclusion, not just for Brockville Mental Health Centre, but for mental health care facilities across the province.”

The employer has been ordered to install security systems but also to hire security guards. So the tsunami is here and rightfully so: all employees deserve not to be exposed to workplace violence.

But why is this ruling so unusual? The courts have told an organization that they must hire specific employees, in this case security guards. This has an impact on an organization’s HR and staffing budgets. Usually workplace H&S violations result in fines and the organization must decide on its own on the direction it must take to comply. The courts in this case were very directive on what was required to ensure the prevention of violence in the workplace, and it requires the funding of more security guards.

As with most employment matters it is always better to pave your own path rather than having a third party or the courts order what you must do. It is clear in Ontario that employers must take workplace violence prevention as seriously as society and our courts are.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Please explain the value of conducting a violence in the workplace risk assessment.
  2. Research a tool that you could use to conduct a violence in the workplace risk assessment. Why did you pick that tool, and what value does it have to an organization?