Interview: How can a Safety Management Systems help throughout extreme environmental events?

Safety Management Systems - Climate change

While the increasing record of bushfires in Australia has been a pressing matter of concern both on the news and in the agenda of several significant institutions lately, the challenges brought by climate change now seem to be a worldwide reality.

From a business management overview, a natural disaster is an external issue of major complexity and requires a wholesome and pragmatic approach from a safety perspective. As it takes place, its occurrence might have multiple impacts on several fronts as risk assessment plans, triggering of processes and procedures regarding WHS, hazard threats to properties and assets of an organisation, all at once.

How can a company respond properly to disruptive environmental events? And if possible, how to prepare in advance for those extreme situations while assuring risk mitigation plans are put in place in a timely fashion? To appropriately respond to those concerns is one of the multiple roles of a well-designed safety management system. To explain how a Safety Management System (SMS) can help organisations bring together plans of hazard and risk mitigation stemming from natural disasters, we have run a Q&A short session with our consultant, Dr Peter Lauer.

Through this short interview, you can get a better understanding of the role of a Safety Management System regarding this ever-evolving and challenging topic. Read below to know more:

JLB:How would an SMS take part in a plan to face natural disasters and other kinds of emergencies - a plan that would consider events like natural disasters and hazards that can happen under those situations?

Dr Peter Lauer: Well, we'll be starting with looking at the context of the organization. How the company operates, where it operates, and how the surroundings interact internally within its business processes. Also, how those processes interact with the surrounding people, environment, other businesses, and what those interactions are specifically. As you build the risk assessment to understand issues better, you should break that risk assessment down into internal and external issues with a safety focus in mind. It could maybe even prompt an environmental or quality assessment.

JLB: About the design of an SMS: Does safety under extreme events depend strictly on the context of the business and its location?

Dr Peter Lauer: Yes, although that wouldn't necessarily be the starting reason for a company to have a system implemented, disasters and risk mitigation will be part of that system in a comprehensive application of the system's approach regarding how the company would operate if an external and major disruption occurs. Inside the system, a natural disaster would be an event that the company should consider. How it might be part of the cause, how it might be part of the solution, or how it might simply cope with it.

JLB: What are the kind of documents, plans and processes to mitigate risks and try to address potential hazards under a properly designed SMS, regardless of the nature of a company?

Dr Peter Lauer: The company would have its risk assessments, its safe work method statements, operating procedures, work instructions, its forms. In the first instance, you want to assess how to conduct work safety daily. From that you derive the safe operating procedures which would be more sort of a script, a "do this, do that" kind of work instruction. This set would include other work instructions as also forms to record the events on how their work was conducted if there were any events such as incidents. A natural disaster would be an incident that happens along the way, which might trigger what is called an emergency plan or the evacuation diagrams and whatnot that sit under those. Your emergency plan should consider things like: how do we identify what equipment and goods are inside facilities? Where does the staff go, do we stay put on-site or do we move from the site, do we let people go home? All those different considerations would come into it and become an actual plan while addressing disruptive circumstances. The more prepared companies would identify what those emergencies would be, even just as an unwanted recognition of things that could go wrong. They can identify what those situations would be, conduct drills, engage in some scenario testing. Though that measures they could better prepare and understand what it's going to entail when attempting to go through such events as natural disasters as safely as possible.

JLB: You mentioned the documents you need to produce and what kind of procedures and ongoing actions you should enforce to prepare to external disruptive occurrences. How these preparedness efforts come together on an ongoing basis?

Dr Peter Lauer: It's a circular process. As with all the system processes that capture continual improvement, the approach is to take an action, record it, identify any improvements to pursue, improve whatever systems processes you have in place, and do better next time - it goes round continuously. The key is trying a little bit better to be more prepared, hopefully. It's the further longer track of doing a better job than last time: good in theory, and the best that we can do.

JLB: How about the parts of the planning you can't design by yourself, what does an SMS doesn't cover on its own, as legislation and government-related instructions?

Dr Peter Lauer: You have to be aware, cognizant and consistent with other requirements that are not merely about running a company to the best you can, but of operating a company within the greater community, the public - which could involve, for example, your bushfire plans. The CFS and MFS suggest people in corporations do your reporting to your regulators, your safe work from whichever state, your department of environment, etcetera. And it goes on from that.

But I guess the main thing out of all of that is: in the case of a natural disaster happens, you want to identify it and to notify it as soon as possible, keep records and try your best to respond commensurately with the risk you perceive with that event.


Dr Peter Lauer is a specialist in Management Systems, Work Health and Safety, and an SMS auditor. He also holds bachelor’s degrees on Technology, Science and Marine Environmental studies and a PhD in Marine Biochemistry.

Dr Lauer also recommends the further reading of this disaster preparedness document developed by Small Business Commissioner of NSW. Click here to access the material:

Learn more about Safety Management Systems and how JLB can help you to achieve Safety ISO standards, including ISO 45001. Understand how an Integrated Management System can help your company on a daily basis, and how can JLB help you through our management consultancy services.

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