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Federal Eye
Posted at 12:50 PM ET, 08/24/2011

What should federal offices do if there’s another earthquake?


Streets around the U.S. Capitol were blocked Tuesday after the East Coast was hit by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake. (SAUL LOEB - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
An earthquake hits your federal government office, shaking the windows, knocking frames off the wall and rattling nerves.

After you evacuate, assess the damage and go back inside, what should you do?

Never fear, the federal government has guidance for this. And it’s the kind that some will appreciate and others will laugh at for its coddling nature and tone.

Tips on how to deal with earthquakes, hurricanes and other major natural disasters in the federal workplace come from the Office of Personnel Management, the agency responsible for federal human resources issues (who some say bungled its response to Tuesday’s quake).

Earthquake-related personnel decisions are rare. President Bill Clinton granted time off for federal workers reeling from the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, and George W. Bush granted similar concessions to California feds after a December 2003 earthquake in Paso Robles, Calif.

Deep within OPM’s official work/life guidance to federal managers, it warns that “emotional stress, physical injury, bereavement, loss of property, and disruption of normal routines may limit the availability and energy of your work group.”

The guidance provides several suggestions — we’ve summarized them below:

Plan ahead: Have plans in place beforehand. Involving employees in the planning helps “give them a sense of empowerment, and can improve the quality of your plan by assuring that everyone’s experience and skills are brought into play.”

Take care of your own people first: Locate your staff, assure they and their families have everything they need to survive. The best part: “Dress codes, rules about children in the office, and restrictions on using telephones for personal business for example, may need to be temporarily adjusted in the post-disaster period.” Agencies may also need to grant excused absences to employees so they can get their lives in order.

Consider expanding the use of telecommuting: Especially if transportation is disrupted. (This only applies to non-emergency employees who can work remotely, of course.)

Work cooperatively with employee unions: “Labor and management share a deep concern for employees’ well being and recovery; working together in an informal way can lead to more effective, flexible responses to employee needs.” (Those of you at agencies with frosty labor-management relations, stop snickering.)

Take steps to prevent accidents and illness: In other words, take steps not to overwork your employees after a disaster, lest they be unable to respond appropriately. Here’s the somewhat no-brainer guidance verbatim:

* Post-disaster environments are often less safe and sanitary than normal ones, so that people living and working in them need to exercise special care.
* Exhaustion and lack of sleep can decrease alertness, impair judgment, and make people more vulnerable to accidents.
* People who are exhausted are at increased risk for disease and often forget to take preventive steps such as drinking enough safe water, avoiding contaminated water, and using whatever other precautions are appropriate in the environment.

As for ensuring that federal employees don’t overdo it after a catastrophe, the guidance suggests that bosses should be trained to “monitor their subordinates and check for signs of exhaustion” and “assure that no employee has an essential task that no one else knows how to do, or that person will surely be overworked.”

OPM also advises bosses to remind workers “of the importance of getting adequate sleep and rest, drinking enough water, and using whatever precautions are necessary to the environment.” They urge offices to provide a convenient supply of cold, safe drinking water “and remind employees to drink water regularly.” Unsafe water supplies should be blocked with tape or cardboard.

Finally, bosses might consider providing opportunities for workers to air their stressful experiences. “People need to talk about what they have gone through, and to compare their reactions with those of others,” the guidance says.

What do you think? Is this appropriate guidance or a bit overblown? If you’re a federal worker in the Washington area, how has your federal office responded to Tuesday’s quake? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

By  |  12:50 PM ET, 08/24/2011

Categories:  Workplace Issues

 
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