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Preventing Terrorist Attacks in the Workplace

November 18, 2015

terrorism-definition.jpgLast week I discussed workplace safety for retailers that take in large, chaotic crowds for sales events. However, emergency preparedness at work extends beyond these self-imposed situations. Unfortunately, we live in a world today wherein terrorist attacks have become far too common.

This year alone, Kenya, Beirut, Paris, and many other locations around the world have experienced massive losses of life by the actions of extremists, not to mention the numerous shootings, bombings, and bio-attacks that continue to take place in the U.S. Violence of this magnitude can take many forms and occur virtually anywhere at any time, so organizations must be diligent in taking all possible measures to avoid such incidents at their worksites, and have emergency preparedness plans in place should they occur.

OSHA uses the FBI definition of a terrorist attack/incident as a premeditated, unlawful act dangerous to human life that is intended to further political or social objectives. The most common types of terror attacks that may occur at your workplace include:

  • Fires and Explosions: These are caused by arson or an explosive device on a targeted location or building. Although employers cannot be expected to reasonably identify and attempt to control these hazards, they should have effective fire prevention plans in place and provide employees with action plans to safely respond to threats and incidents.

  • Bioterrorism: This is the intentional use of micro-organisms to bring about ill effects or death to humans, livestock, or crops. Employees who receive materials and packages to their worksites must be trained to identify suspicious substances and minimize exposures in the work environment.

  • Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD): Known as “dirty bombs,” these consist of radioactive material combined with conventional explosives. Their purpose is to disperse the radioactive chemicals over a large area, killing those in the immediate area and causing panic in the target population.

The first step towards preparedness is assessing one’s risk of a workplace terror attack, which involves a combination of worksite vulnerabilities, recognized threat, and anticipated consequences of the event. Keep in mind that although many vulnerable locations are typically identified as public spaces, they are still the worksites for thousands of employees. These factors include the extent to which a site:

  • Uses, handles, stores, or transports hazardous materials

  • Provides essential services (e.g., electricity, fuels)

  • Has a high volume of pedestrian traffic (e.g., shopping malls)

  • Has limited means of egress, such as a high-rise complex or underground operations

  • Has a high volume of incoming materials (e.g., mail, raw materials)

  • Is considered a high profile site (e.g., sports stadium, water dam)

  • Is part of the transportation system

Although some worksites are more vulnerable to an attack than others, every organization should take the proper steps to prepare for such an incident. After assessing your level of risk, be sure to contact local and federal agencies to discuss your potential threats so that they can work with you to better plan your preparedness and response procedures. Another key point is to maintain and update these procedures regularly. As organizations grow and change, their safety protocols must correspondingly adapt.

It is also critical to implement an Emergency Action Plan (EAP), which facilitates and organizes employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies in the event of a terror incident. This includes training employees such that they understand their roles within the plan, conducting regular fire and evacuation drills so that employees know their best way out of the worksite and where to find a safe space, and providing accessible safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and masks. Highly vulnerable sites should also be prepared for extreme circumstances. For example, if a bombing were to occur, management must be aware of the potential threat of secondary explosive devices, which are bombs placed at the scene of an ongoing emergency response that are intended to cause casualties among responders and further damage. More details on developing an EAP for your worksite can be found in OSHA’s EAP eTool.

Although there is no way to completely eliminate the threat of a terrorist attack taking place at your worksite, following these guidelines will reduce the risk, and minimize the casualties in a worst case scenario.

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Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.