When I was growing up near Buffalo, New York, experiencing two snow storms in three weeks was no big deal- in fact it was rather commonplace. When I joined the laboratory workforce, those storms really didn’t affect day-to-day operations in the hospitals where I worked. That’s not true in Virginia where I live today. Our two recent snow storms crippled the area closing roads, schools, and making it very difficult for staff to get to work. The below-average temperatures that ensued helped those unfavorable conditions last for over a week. That might not sound so bad to those used to that type of weather, but in warmer locales, a scenario like that can be devastating to hospital operations.
Some hospitals and labs state that all employees are “essential,” and they must get to work no matter what. Now that may also mean that if a severe weather event is predicted, the facility will offer sleeping quarters for employees who are scheduled to work. The upside is that the laboratory will be adequately staffed during the disaster event. The downside, of course, is that if the incident lasts for several days, this staff may not be able to leave. That can be very stressful for people who will be worried about their families, homes, and pets (Yes, there are hospitals that do offer pet sheltering for employees!).
The laboratory emergency response plan should include information for staff on how to handle such situations. If the facility offers shelter, child care or even pet care in a disaster, how is that information communicated? If sheltering is not provided, what is the realistic expectation for staff? Will the facility provide rides to and from work for staff?
Some Human Resource policies need to be addressed as well. If staff have to stay beyond their scheduled time, do they get extra pay? Is there a bonus or reward system in place? Is there a special “on-call” pay for those not able to leave? Is there a penalty for essential employees who can’t get to work? Those penalties might include losing pay or some other form of written corrective action.
One workable disaster staffing plan I have seen consists of breaking your lab staff up into three teams, A, B, and C. Team A and B are activated and on site when an emergency management situation arises, and team C remains at home. For example, if a hurricane is forecast for the area, teams A and B are to report to the laboratory with supplies and personal items as needed. As the storm arrives and possibly for a few days after, teams A and B work alternating shifts to keep the lab operational (this assumes there is no major damage to the building- that’s a topic for another day). Once roads are clear and staff is able to travel safely to and from work, team C arrives as a relief crew and assists with recovery.
Of course, this system will not work in all labs. It depends on the number of staff and the individual needs of the department. Obviously, a larger staff will be able to apply such a plan more easily than a minimally-staffed location. It might even work better to split the staff into four teams, but each lab would have to customize their own process.
Emergency scenarios like a blizzard, a tornado, a hurricane, or even a flu pandemic can create lab staffing shortages in a hurry. Make sure your lab emergency management plan addresses staffing and is flexible enough to allow for different types of circumstances. Utilizing staff realistically and appropriately can help the lab safely navigate many disaster situations.