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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Keeping Safe

Staying safe on the job

By Diane Lewis, Globe Staff, 11/4/2001


How genuine is the risk?
Taking practical steps
Staying safe on the job
Handling new kind of stress
Talking with children
Is it just the flu?
What to do when in doubt
Hospital readiness
How the body fights back
Are there other threats?
Not all terror threats equal

How to talk to your kids
5 signs you need help
What works, what doesn't
How anthrax is diagnosed
Inside a bacterial invasion
In case of emergency...
Identifying a mail threat
Safety resources

Compare cold & flu to other bioterror threats:
Cold & Flu
Hemorrhagic Fever

Return to front
More anthrax coverage

Remember when words like ''biohazard'' and ''bioterrorism'' were confined to the pages of science fiction novels, when letters were missives, not weapons, and the simple act of going to work hardly ever elicited safety concerns?

Those days are gone. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., coupled with recent news reports of anthrax spores appearing in select pieces of ufsafebodymail, have employees on edge.

You may not work at a post office, a media company, or the White House - three workplaces that have been targets for terror - but if the bioscares continue these questions may be uppermost in your mind: ''How can I protect myself from being targeted at work?'' and ''How can my employer prepare for the possibility of an attack?''

Specialists are virtually unanimous: Let your company know your concerns. Companies can help anxious employees feel more confident - and avoid business disruptions - by listening to workers' concerns, developing contingency plans that reflect some of those concerns, and providing security measures.

''Some employers hide when bad things happen,'' says psychologist Mark Braverman, founder of CMG Associates, a Newton workplace-counseling firm that specializes in violent and traumatic events. ''But employees have questions, and the time to answer them is now. The employer must do whatever it takes to make them feel safe. In the current climate, people want information. Otherwise, the rumors and fears will get out of control.''

What about employers who are lax? Be proactive, say specialists. For example, don't hesitate to contact your local public health department for information on bioagents. Find out how to differentiate between an anthrax infection and the flu, for example. Make copies of this information and share it with co-workers.

Determine whether your employer has a contingency plan. If not, galvanize key personnel - from security officials to human resource professionals to front-line employees. Then, pay a visit to your company's human resources director or chief executive officer.

Explain your fears. Ask for assistance in developing the programs or systems that will keep you and the business safe. By requesting that officials meet with representatives from various departments, your boss may get the message that scared workers are less productive and they won't stay.

''The people in the best position to plan for contingencies are working full time for an employer,'' says Harvey Burstein, the David B. Schulman professor of security at Northeastern University. ''They know what must be done to stay in business, and they know what needs to be done to secure the premises. The people who actually do the planning must understand the nature of the business.''

Burstein says contingency planning should begin long before an emergency actually occurs. One example: Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain. After a religious sect released the nerve gas sarin in a Tokyo subway in 1995 and killed 12 people, the hospital held a biological hazards drill simulating the attack.

''We had staff act as patients and the emergency department was dressed in special suits, and we actually decontaminated the area outside the building,'' recalled Kathleen Morley, a registered nurse manager of the emergency room at Faulkner Hospital.

Such safety drills are now routine. Additionally, all hospital workers wear clip-on badges with their names, photographs, and, on the back, detailed instructions on whom to call in the event of a bomb scare, a fire, an infectious agent, or other threat. Codes on the back of the badge indicate what rescue operations are required, what to do, and where to go.

Employers with contingency plans are less likely to panic, or lose a substantial amount of business, when an emergency occurs, says Northeastern's Burstein.

Take Federal Express. The Memphis package company, which delivers 3 million packages around the world daily, was among several companies where air express deliveries were interrupted the week of the hijackings. Unable to load packages aboard its jets, the company relied on a contingency plan involving an international trucking network. Customers experienced delays of up to 48 hours, but all packages were delivered, company officials said.

Spokeswoman Jennifer McGowan said the company is approaching the bioterrorism scare with caution. ''We have a team of dangerous-goods specialists who are regulators. They make sure guidelines are followed,'' McGowan said. ''We've informed workers about anthrax and how to handle packages. And we are continuing to electronically scan packages every time they change hands. That way you know everything about it and so do we.''

What if terrorists strike, threatening the health of workers and the safety of the workplace? What do you do then?

Burstein, a former FBI agent who also worked for the State Department, offers some tips. First, he says, the employer needs to move the operation. ''The change does not have to be permanent, but it should take place while the building is being decontaminated or rebuilt. Psychologically, employees will be concerned and so will the public. Find another site and allow them to work there until the building is ready,'' Burstein said.

Medical emergency telephone numbers should be readily available in the event biological agents are found. Human resource personnel should immediately contact medical professionals for guidance.

If the building has been contaminated or damaged, companies should rely on backup computer systems to continue work. Additionally, all contingency plans should contain provisions for a ''hot'' site, say specialists. Hot sites are alternative work spaces that contain duplicates of the systems and files you need, as well as furniture, food, and first aid.

Officials should activate the company's emergency communications system. Under such a system, employers maintain a list of telephone and cellphone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other information that allows workers to stay in touch with the firm and one another during the crisis. Using this system, workers can also telecommute for as long as necessary.

This story ran on page PAGENUMBER of the Boston Sunday Globe's Common-sense Guide to Keeping Safe on 11/4/2001.
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