An exit plan can keep workers safe in a crisis

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 April, 2011, 12:00am


Many companies have been caught out by the recent crises in the Middle East and North Africa. Those who were comfortable working in relatively crime-free Libya found themselves in a war zone overnight. Tourists in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain faced chaos at airports. Firms have abandoned properties and left employees stranded.

But oddly enough, although protests have taken place in Iraq too, they are not having the same impact on its slowly re-emerging commerce. Grievances such as unemployment, poverty and inflation are as much a problem there as anywhere else but private companies have not been significantly affected.

One reason is readiness. Companies operating in Iraq have measures in place to mitigate risks and manage crises. Companies elsewhere should have plans, too.

It is no use having a plan in a document gathering dust on a shelf: in a crisis, there will be little time for reading a book. Actions need to be swift and fluid, both by those in the country and those assisting them from outside, such as travel planners and security officers. The only way to ensure fluidity is training and regular practice for all involved.

Evacuation plans must be reviewed. Companies must check their insurance contracts in light of recent events. In the small print, many providers will only guarantee evacuation from the nearest safe airport. During the crises in Libya and Egypt, such airports were often in another country, of little use to those stuck, say, in Cairo. Measures need to be in place for evacuation by other means, such as boat or car.

There is no 'one size fits all' plan that companies can sign up for and hope for the best. An energy firm with staff in the desert will have different evacuation requirements from a hotel firm or construction company in a busy tourist resort.

Furthermore, contractors must not assume that security will be provided by the main company. In one case, a group of 30 sub-contractors woke up one day in the Libyan desert to find that the management had disappeared, repatriated by their own country.

Crisis management can be expensive and time-consuming but it is better than being caught out. Many workers managed to leave Libya and Egypt without getting in the news, often on a scheduled flight before conditions deteriorated. Those that did not react in time were either forced to stay put in a lockdown, or they risked dangerous road movements or faced the high cost of chartering a plane.

Furthermore, if employees suffer harm, the cost can be unquantifiable. You cannot put a value on the impact on their family, or indeed a company's reputation. It may also face financial liability.

Crisis management is a long-term process, but with immeasurable potential benefits. The cost of a crisis can very quickly outweigh the cost of mitigating a crisis, while the impact on staff, assets and reputation can be irreparable.

If plans are only reviewed when a crisis is taking place, it is too late.

John Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE Group, a British security and risk analysis firm working in Iraq since before 2003 and throughout the Middle East and North Africa