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Question: I’m an EHS professional and I work for a manufacturing company that operates in areas of the country where we sometimes get inclement weather that affects our operation. Every time we get bad weather, I’m asked to help decide whether we should cease operations or not, and every time it feels like I’m making the wrong decision. No matter what decision is made, we’re either going to upset Sales and Customer Service (who don’t work on-site) or we’re going to upset the workforce.
Is there a way to make this decision that doesn’t cause conflict and if so, how do you do it?
This is a tough situation for anyone to be in, regardless of their role with the company. While it would be easy to say “safety first” and end the conversation here, it’s not as simple as that and to make an informed decision requires thinking outside the box and considering multiple different angles.
There are several different perspectives that are important to consider in this situation because once you understand the situation from different angles, it makes it much easier to make an informed decision.
Let’s start with Customer Service and/or Sales. These are the “customer-facing” employees who may have to bear the brunt of any customer-related issues that ceasing the operation for weather might cause—like delayed orders. In this case, these employees work in a different location and aren’t affected by the inclement weather so their real beef with closing the operation is the hassle it produces. While this may seem like a backburner issue, it’s really not. When production is paused and a facility can’t produce, orders can get backlogged and backlogs eventually have to be cleared. Catch up on orders often requires pushing employees to work faster and work longer hours which is a safety issue within itself.
A second perspective to consider is the operation itself. When an operation (especially in manufacturing) experiences an unplanned shutdown, it can be really hard on the equipment and machinery. Sometimes this is unavoidable (like when there’s a fire) but in general, a good safety person is going to understand the burden that shutting down can place on the equipment and machinery and will take this into consideration. They’re also going to think about the issues that will inevitably happen during start-up—because they will happen. Equipment and machinery won’t always restart like magic and that means workers will have to troubleshoot and spend time exposed to the points of operation on that machinery which can be risky. Additionally, if restarting the operation includes this kind of equipment and machinery issues, it will further delay customers receiving their orders—so that’s another thing Customer Service will have to explain to already frustrated customers.
Yet another aspect to consider within the operation is staffing. If the operation remains open during inclement weather and there are a large number of call-offs (meaning, people call off and stay home), will there be enough people to safely run the operation? And, if the weather gets bad enough during their shift and someone gets injured or becomes ill and needs emergency care or if there’s a fire, will emergency responders be able to access the facility? What about situations such as power outages that may happen during inclement weather situations? Is the facility capable of supporting workers if they were to be stranded at the facility? These are all things to seriously consider when making this decision.
In this situation, it’s easy to get lost in the operational and customer-facing issues and forget to place enough focus on the impact on the workforce. If you look back at both the customer-facing issues and the operational issues we’ve already discussed, you’ll notice negative effects on the workforce in both. In addition to what we’ve already discussed, there’s also the human impact of all of this that needs to be identified and considered—and it’s deeper than what you might think.
Aside from the obvious risks employees might face if they attempt to commute during or after inclement weather such as getting into an accident and being injured or killed or being exposed to the elements because they’re stranded somewhere, there are also more personal things to consider. For example, what do employees do with younger school-aged children if school isn’t in session? During inclement weather, local daycares most likely also won’t be open so it becomes a real dilemma for working parents. It’s especially a dilemma for those workers who live paycheck to paycheck and going without a day’s wages means the difference between making rent and/or affording groceries. While these are definitely not the usual things an employer might consider when making most company decisions, in the case of whether to cease operations during inclement weather, they’re extremely important things to consider—especially if the company’s motto is “Safety First”.
Speaking of the safety message, a final consideration that should be briefly discussed is how the company’s overall safety message could be impacted by a decision to remain open in an inclement weather situation. It should really go without saying that if a company values its workforce, it will want to do what’s best for them, even when it means the operation takes a hit and/or customers might be unhappy for a bit. Unfortunately, in these situations, the decision-makers will often place operational and/or customer needs before safety and it can be quite damaging. When a company touts a “safety first” or “safety before production” message and then puts production first, it sends a very clear message to the workforce that the safety message is lip service. While every situation is different, it’s important not to forget that for words to be meaningful, they have to be supported with actions and to remember that employees are very perceptive of these things.
Now that we’ve discussed all the angles to consider, let’s talk about ways to make things easier for those saddled with this decision. There are absolutely things a company can do to not only make the decision easier but also remove certain things from that decision—like opinions or pressure from other departments.
This one might seem obvious but having a very clear plan to address these situations is a must—but not just any plan. For example, companies with operations in places that routinely flood can include specific conditions that will trigger a facility to shut down. These conditions don’t have to be overly technical. In fact, they can be as simple as something like this:
The facility will begin shutdown and evacuation procedures when:
Doing things this way removes the burden of trying to please everyone and places it squarely on the situation itself. Companies should be inclusive with their plans and include specifics such as when the closure will trigger “emergency pay” if a company offers such a thing and how attendance points will work during these situations. Creating this kind of all-inclusive plan requires some effort but it can really make things a lot easier and reduce everyone’s stress.
Another thing companies can do to make things easier is to pay attention to what other companies in the area are doing and use that information to make the decision. During winter weather it’s quite common to see school and company closures being broadcast by the local news channels and radio stations and also on local news websites. This information can be very valuable when making a decision about when and if to cease operations. For example, a company could have a plan that includes a requirement to begin shutdown procedures when a certain number of other facilities in the area have announced a shutdown.
An additional suggestion to help make this decision easier is to use information from the local emergency response agencies and then formulate closure requirements based on that. For example, in Indiana, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a page on its website that provides the current travel status for each county which is supplied by each county’s Emergency Management Agency. Counties can be at one of three levels: Advisory, Watch, and Warning. A company in Indiana could use this information and conclude that at a certain level, the facility will begin shutdown procedures. By doing things this way, the decision to cease operations is based on pertinent information supplied by an emergency response agency which reduces the burden on leadership.
We know that every situation is different and that there’s not one, single solution for every company when making this type of decision. But hopefully, we’ve given you some things to consider that will make the decision-making process a little easier and less stressful.
Speaking of making things less stressful, another way to help reduce stress is by using safety software to manage your overall safety program. If you’re interested in introducing software to your safety program, give us a call. We’d love to help you build the safety program of your dreams!
Katy Lyden is a EHS Domain Analyst and Subject Matter Expert for StarTex Software, the company behind EHS Insight. Prior to her current role, Katy spent 17 years successfully leading EHS programs for several large companies within the manufacturing industry. Katy is a Navy veteran, Licensed Emergency Medical...
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