The Paris massacre has received global attention and unleashed a worldwide outpouring of grief. The high death toll from six coordinated attacks directed at soft targets like restaurants, a stadium and a concert hall have stoked fears of similar attacks in other parts of the world.
While much of the discussion and media reports on the Paris attacks have centred on public safety, fundamentalism and the refugee crisis in Europe, the fact that many of these targeted venues are also workplaces has eluded the spotlight.
Consider the crew member who was killed in the Bataclan theatre while working for the band Eagles of Death Metal. The hostage-taking at Lindt Café in the heart of Sydney’s financial district last December, which led to the death of the café’s 34-year-old manager, is another example of how terrorism has become the latest addition to a host of occupational hazards that workers face today.
Terror acts are the latest permutation of workplace violence — one that is among the hardest to pre-empt and contain. While we do not have a crystal ball to predict when and where the next attack might take place, some workplaces are more vulnerable than others. That includes businesses operating in locations with high human traffic, such as financial districts and high-rise buildings, and those in transportation (think trains and airlines), essential services (like electrical facilities and postal services) and high-value installations (which include power plants, oil refineries and military facilities).
The types of businesses and their geographical reach are also influencing factors. Organizations working with western governments, multinational corporations operating in countries experiencing political turmoil and firms with access to security infrastructure, sensitive information and telecommunication networks are all vulnerable.
We live in complicated times. As terrorism today has assumed a modus operandi that can be best described as decentralized and nimble, workplace-safety planning needs to be increasingly filtered through the lens of disaster management. That means oh&s policies and plans need to be reviewed and updated to reflect evolving hazards that can bring operations to a grinding halt, threaten employee safety and even result in massive loss of lives.
While terror acts may be influenced by geopolitical developments that are beyond our control, companies can take concrete steps to prepare themselves for such eventualities. And that does not necessarily require a grand plan and prohibitive resources. For example, while it may not be feasible for all workplaces to scan for explosive devices and install metal detectors, having a sound firefighting plan and conducting routine drills to familiarize employees with evacuation routes are good response measures to prepare for an explosion or fire. For companies that require staff to travel overseas — especially in countries where foreigners are at risk of being kidnapped to serve as pawns for political gains — advising employees to monitor political developments in the destination country prior to travelling, providing tips for staying vigilant and avoiding situations that can put them in a vulnerable position when abroad are recommended practices.
And being small does not mean being safe. The three food and beverage establishments that were targeted in Paris are all small businesses, but that did not keep them out of the bull’s-eye of terror. Having a sound and well-thought-out workplace-safety plan — and one that has been adapted to take into consideration terror acts as among occupational hazards — will influence how well a company stands up to an unforeseen attack and how quickly it recovers from it, both of which have a direct impact on business continuity.