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Preparing Your Company for Biochemical Terrorism

October 21, 2001
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Ergonomics and Facilities, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article
First, the good news. Statistically, biological terrorism isn't likely to affectyour company. It's possible, of course. The anthrax cases in Washington and elsewhere around America have proven that. The fact remains, however, that manufacturing and distributingeffective biological agents is exceptionally difficult, even with a state-of-the-artmanufacturing facility, and therefore is a relatively minor threat to any individualbusiness. Chemical attacks are easier to achieve, but also are more readily evident,making them easier to deal with simply because you know something has happened.

    That being said, fire, floods, tornadoes, and even long-term power outagesaren't particularly likely either, but companies prepare for them. It's timeto update disaster-preparedness plans to include responses to biochemical terrorism.

    Now, the bad news. There's not much you can do to prevent biochemical terrorismexcept to be vigilant and report suspicious behavior -- like odd uses of aerosolsor chemicals in places where they shouldn't be, and even sticky mail in themail room.

    A disaster-preparedness plan that includes biochemical terrorism has a lotin common with other disaster plans, with a few important differences: biologicalattacks probably won't be noticed for several days, and many factors will beout of your control.

Flu or terrorism?
    Biological attacks are subtle and may go unnoticed untilsymptoms occur throughout the population or until someone is diagnosed withan unusual disease. "Symptoms may not occur for days or even weeks, andwhen they do, most likely will be first diagnosed as the flu. People aren'tlikely to be admitted to a hospital until they're very sick and are admittedfor pneumonia. Then the actual cause of the illness is likely to be determined,"explains Donald Locasto, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine atthe University of Cincinnati.

    In this current climate of terrorism, expect employees to be nervous when colleaguesdevelop colds. Therefore, "when flu-like symptoms occur -- especially ifseveral people develop them -- have those employees medically evaluated,"recommends Roger Rains, chief operating officer for Crisis Management Worldwide.This is the first step in protecting your employees and reassuring them thatyou take the risk of biological terrorism seriously.

    Chemical attacks, however, are more evident and symptoms appear quickly. Ifemployees experience shortness of breath, fluid drainage, or aches and pains,or become comatose, begin emergency medical procedures. "Most paramedicshave the equipment to quickly identify the cause," Rains says.

    Now is a good time to determine whether your HMO or local hospitals are alertto the possibility of biochemical attacks and are equipped to identify them.If they're not, refer them to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionfor updated information and continue to pressure them to improve their recognitioncapabilities. Antidotes are available for the common biological agents throughthe National Pharmaceutical Stockpile and the Metropolitan Medical ResponseSystem.

    Whether a company should take steps to detect biochemicalreleases or to eradicate the agents really depends on the perceived threat toits facilities and employees, and to nearby buildings.

    A new air filter developed by Atmospheric Glow Technologies (Rockford, TN)in cooperation with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) uses glowplasma (highly charged air) to remove "99.99 percent" of the bacteria,viruses, fungi, and spores it traps, along with some nerve gases. Accordingto President Kimberly Kelly-Wintenberg, Ph.D., it will become available in 2002.

    Detection systems also are available. R-Tec's C-BAND unit, designed to protectpublic spaces, warns of chemical or biological agents and sprays a substanceto neutralize the agent. Environmental Technologies Group, Inc., manufacturesa handheld device that is popular with civilian government agencies.

    Most offices shouldn't bother with gas masks, though. By the time you're awareof biological terrorism, it's too late to do anything about it other than toenforce quarantines for a few days. To be effective against chemical attacks,gas masks must be properly fitted and have up-to-date filters. And, as Locastopoints out, they don't protect against gases that are transmitted through theskin.

Go or stay?
    The physical responses to biochemical attacks reallydepend on where they occur in relation to your facilities, and on the governmentresponse. Many decisions will be out of your hands. Instead, federal, state,or local health officials will determine whether and when to evacuate the areaand when your staff may return. Follow their guidance, even when it means losingcostly materials.

    Work with your local fire department or emergency-management team now to planan orderly evacuation, especially if your facility takes time to shut down safely.Consider whether gas masks or more stringent safeguards like chemical protectionsuits are needed for those who must stay behind to safely shut down operations.(Refineries and chemical plants have these protections as a matter of course.)

Emergency contacts
    In addition to contact information for local, regional,and federal emergency-management agencies like the Centersfor Disease Control and Prevention, also list phone numbers and Internetsites for relevant pages of the NationalOceanic and Atmospheric Administration for local weather conditions, includingprevailing winds.

Know the building
    In the disaster-preparedness plan, outline how the heating/ventilation/airconditioning (HVAC) system works and how to shut it down if necessary. Be awarethat buildings, increasingly, are overpressurized, which prevents outside airfrom entering except through the HVAC system. That knowledge may affect a decisionwhether or not to shut down the system.

Alternative sites
    Anticipate building closures "and be prepared towork from other locations," advises Frank G. Boscarillo, the designateddisaster recovery manager for KMC Telecom. Identify, in advance, where the companycould headquarter in the event of a disaster, and select primary, secondary,and tertiary options, which could mean moving to another city or another stateor even operating out of homes. Also plan for the possibility of your facilitybeing locked down by keeping food and water on hand.

    KMC has "three headquarters locations, and the standard operating procedurefor each includes a general disaster-preparedness plan and a site-specific planwith local numbers," Boscarillo says. He also advises keeping copies onthe company intranet and on a shared network device. Rains often provides desktopreferences and laminated cards outlining the highlights of the disaster-preparednessplans for his clients.

    But in the end, surviving biochemical attacks may come down to individual efforts."In the best possible scenario, all employees have their vaccinations up-to-dateand are in good health," Rains says, which makes them less susceptibleto viruses.

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