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By Susan Ladika | Global Turmoil Tests Ability To Protect Workers | 04-07-2011 |

Global Turmoil Tests Ability To Protect Workers

After coping with a decade of extreme devastation ranging from wars to terrorism to natural disasters, many companies are reacting with greater agility to threats to their workforce and business.

But the global turmoil so far this year has tested even the most experienced crisis managers. First came the upheaval in Egypt followed by the violent uprising in Libya and protests in Yemen and Syria. Amid those events, two deadly earthquakes also wreaked havoc—a 6.3-magnitude tremor in New Zealand and a 9.0-magnitude quake in Japan.

Japan alone has proven to be especially challenging. When the earthquake and tsunami hit in March, companies scrambled to activate their disaster management plans. Then the discovery of radiation leaking from crippled nuclear reactors further escalated the risks to employees.

Insurance giant Aflac Inc. has plans in place to address almost any scenario, but "we just didn't think we'd have to implement them all on top of each other," says Laura Kane, vice president for external relations at the Columbus, Georgia-based company.

As the Japanese earthquake and ensuing tsunami walloped the Sendai region, buildings began to sway in Tokyo, about 200 miles away. "As you can imagine, there was a lot of confusion," Kane says. Aflac urged employees to hunker down in its Tokyo office. The company brought in food and toothbrushes, and workers remained ensconced in the Aflac building until they felt it was safe to head home.

When the immediate crisis had passed, Aflac managers began contacting the company's 5,000 employees and 100,000 independent insurance agents in Japan, including those at the company's two branches in the Sendai region. The company learned that one nonemployee who sold its insurance was killed in the tragedy, and it was unable to reach a few people at its agencies. The insurer has been in contact with all of its full-time staff in Japan and they are all alive.

Aflac executives in Georgia and Japan talk several times a day and hold a videoconference at day's end "to see people's faces and make sure they're OK," Kane says. Aflac's handful of expatriates in Japan are staying put, she adds. The two Sendai area offices were in good shape after the earthquake, but even a couple of weeks later, the company was still telling employees to stay home and take care of their families.

In the volatile Middle East, many companies have evacuated workers. Employers began moving their expatriates out of Libya in February, when rebels started their uprising against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. By March, international forces had unleashed airstrikes, and the United Nations had declared a no-fly zone after the country's military fired on the Libyan people.

"Libya is the most concerning because it's extremely dangerous now," says Mike Piker, lead international consultant for the human capital division of Mercer, an HR consultancy. "Most if not all" of the workers from Western countries have left Libya, he adds, noting that, because "no adjacent country makes sense," most expatriates were sent home.

The unrest in Libya came on the heels of Egypt's ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. Local residents and expatriates fled Egypt, leaving companies with far smaller staffs. Employers also faced communication challenges during the insurrection, which began in January. The government shut down the Internet and cellphone service for days, electricity was spotty, telephone land lines weren't reliable, and the ongoing protests made it difficult for people to move around.

Some companies evacuated only their expatriates from Egypt, while local employees helped keep businesses running. That was the game plan for EMC Corp., a Hopkinton, Massachusetts-based information technology provider, that had made Cairo one of its seven main regional operation centers in 2009.

After its small staff of expatriates left Egypt, EMC remained in constant contact with its local employees, says John Herrera, vice president of global delivery. Work was handled from other countries while the Egyptian government blocked the Internet. When the Internet was restored, Egyptian employees worked from home.

Because EMC operates in more than 80 countries, "you encounter potentially disruptive things pretty regularly," Herrera says. Before EMC sets up operations in a new country, he adds, it considers the most likely risks and plans accordingly.

Quintiles, a biopharmaceutical company in Durham, North Carolina, faced disruptions in both Egypt and Japan, but of far different magnitudes. The company has about 30 employees in Egypt, which proved to be "almost a dress rehearsal for what happened in Japan," says company spokesman Phil Bridges. Even after the situation in Egypt had calmed, a damaged telecommunications network switch near the Quintiles office took days to repair.

When disaster struck Japan, the stakes were much higher for Quintiles, which has about 2,300 employees at seven sites there. The company activated its business continuity and disaster recovery plans, reaching its business recovery manager in Tokyo via email. The plans involve cross-functional teams from various regions. Through twice daily teleconferences, they assess the status of employees, facilities and business operations, Bridges says.

Within 24 hours the company knew everyone was safe. The earthquake struck on a Friday afternoon and by Monday morning, Bridges says, Quintiles would have been able to resume nearly normal operations out of Tokyo.

But many employees are still working from home because of public transportation disruptions and gasoline shortages. About 105 employees and their families living within 125 miles of the Fukushima nuclear plant have been evacuated because of the threat of radiation exposure. Some of the relocated employees are working remotely, Bridges says.

New technologies are playing a bigger part in crisis management. Quintiles, for example, is using its corporate intranet, known as QZone, to keep all employees up-to-date on the situation in Japan.

While some companies have relocated workers to other parts of Japan or evacuated expatriates because of radiation fears, FedEx Corp. has not moved any of its 1,600 employees. The delivery company keeps on staff a full-time radiation health physicist to help determine how to proceed, says spokesman Jim McCluskey.

One small FedEx facility in Japan was wiped out by the tsunami, but all of the employees are safe. FedEx is coordinating its crisis response plan from its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong, McCluskey says, with constant consultation with executives at its headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee.

Some companies turn to outside crisis advisers such as International SOS, which helps firms manage the health and security risks facing their expatriate employees. Robert Quigley, regional medical director at International SOS Americas, says its Philadelphia office typically receives 600 calls a day, but after the disaster in Japan, call volume soared 40 percent.

Many callers wanted to know how other companies were responding, and the responses ranged from all employees staying put to evacuating nonessential personnel and family members to moving employees and their families to other parts of Japan or out of the country.

More than 600 clients took part in an International SOS webinar that covered such topics as potassium iodide protection against radiation exposure and the need for psychological support for employees.

Corporations often benefit from lessons learned during previous crises. After the Great Hanshin, or Kobe, earthquake in 1995, Aflac increased its staff and established a base in Kansai to bolster its ability to handle operations in case of a disaster, Kane says. Until that time, policy administration operations had been handled only in Tokyo and Osaka.

During the previous earthquake, workers at Aflac's Kobe offices suffered a shortage of food and supplies. So before last month's disaster, the company had already boosted its emergency rations and supplies.

Such precautionary measures will likely become ever more important. John Rendeiro, vice president for global security and intelligence at International SOS, says that while the world has always had dangerous spots, "there are a lot more people traveling and living abroad," and companies are more cognizant of their "legal and moral obligation" to help their employees.

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