12 Implementing: Emergency response

Hazard identification, risk assessment and hazard control (Chapters 9–11) all focus on strengthening an organisation’s safety defence layers in response to latent conditions contributing to WHS incidents, as outlined in Chapter 5’s discussions of the Swiss Cheese Model.  Importantly, James Reason emphasises that it is not possible to control all possible hazards all of the time, so it is vital to “to provide the means of escape and rescue should hazard containment fail” (Reason, 1997, p.7).  This is known as an emergence response and is the focus of this chapter.

Learning Objectives

This chapter introduces:

  • The principles behind emergency response planning and procedures.
  • Natural and public disaster management in the WHS context.
  • Real life examples of how WHS management principles have improved actual emergency responses.
  • The role of effective crisis leadership in WHS.
  • The importance of simulation training to consolidate emergency response planning.

An emergency response may be defined as:

An immediate, systematic response to an unexpected or dangerous occurrence. The goal of an emergency response procedure is to mitigate the impact of the event on people, property, and the environment.  Emergencies warranting a response range from hazardous material spills resulting from a transportation accident to a natural disaster. (Mishra, 2018, para. 1)


A green sign depicts a person moving through an open door with an arrow indicating where the closest building exit is located.

Figure 12.1: Signage indicates the direction of the closest emergency exit
Source: pxhere.com, CC0


A fully functioning WHS management system is constantly striving to ‘block the holes’ in James Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model and reduce the risk of a serious incident occurring.  When all else fails, however, an emergency response is our last layer of protection.  Importantly, emergency response protocols extend beyond WHS boundaries to include first responses to natural disaster or public disaster situations.  The goal of any emergency response is to reduce injury and loss of life as the immediate situation unfolds.

The challenge of natural disasters, public disasters or even a critical WHS incident is that they are low probability-high consequence, events (Pearson & Clair, 1998).  The following video explains why being prepared is important but also why it is a challenge to keep our focus on these unlikely, but potentially catastrophic, events.

Box 12.1: Video disaster and preparedness

This video is useful when trying to understand preparing for disasters (incidents).  While it refers to individuals, the same logic applies to businesses when planning for natural disasters or WHS incidents.


Source: “Episode 1, Meet ‘Disaster’ and ‘Preparedness’“, PrepareMetroKC, YouTube

Emergency response plans

So where should we begin?  The role of an emergency response plan is to identify the best response when a particular situation eventuates.  For example, an emergency response for a fire requires a building evacuation.  This is quite different a lockdown designed to protect staff from a potentially violent workplace trespasser.  The goal of the emergency response is to reduce the risk of harm to those immediately threatened by the hazard.

Developing an emergency response plan is challenging because it depends on the number of known potential hazards and the number of people and/or first responders who need to be coordinated.  However, the alternative is having no planned response for known potential hazards which clearly increases the risk of harm to workers and site visitors (sub-contractors, customers etc.) as well as increasing a business’ legal liability.

In the following Contemporary WHS Challenge, Steve Anderson, former Chief Executive Officer of Foodstuffs (South Island), discusses the critical role that their emergency response plan played in responding to the Christchurch 2011 earthquakes.

Contemporary WHS challenges – earthquakes

While Acts of God technically sit outside of WHS legislation, natural disasters can and do have many impacts on our workplaces and do have WHS implications.  Particularly with global climate change increasing the risk of weather-based natural disasters (United States Geological Survey, n.d.; see Figure 12.2), it is important to consider how to take the best of our WHS practices and apply these when our businesses are engaged in disaster management.


A twisted and broken road crossing has collapsed into a river bed due to the flooding caused by Cyclone Gabrielle in Havelock North, New Zealand.

Figure 12.2: Cyclone Gabrielle, February 2023, caused devastation to the North Island of New Zealand
Source: “Gabrielle cleanup Havelock North 2023” by Vanessa Parker, ©​ NZ Defence Force, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

The Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 was a natural disaster that immediately caused loss of life, with some employees dying at work when buildings were damaged, but also immediately generated many hazards for the survivors, ranging from unsafe live power cables, through to hygiene issues arising from the disrupted water supplies and sewerage systems.


Box 12.1: The Christchurch earthquake

The following video provides a quick overview of the scale and impact of this Christchurch earthquake.


Source: “A look back at the Christchurch earthquake, a dark day in New Zealand history“, 1News, YouTube


Steve Anderson was Chief Executive Officer of Foodstuffs (South Island) at the time of this natural disaster.  In the following videos he provides insights into the importance of caring for workers during crises (Box 12.3), managing fatigue during recovery (Box 12.4) and the importance of being prepared (Box 12.5).

Box 12.3: Steve Anderson, the importance of caring for workers during a crisis

In this video, Steve Anderson explains how little acts of care towards workers can boost morale and keep staff focused on the common goal.


Source: Leckie, T. and Sheridan, L. (producers) (2023). Business for Good: Steve Anderson.
Molloy, J. (video and audio), Pearce, J. (coordinator), Hortle, L. (assistant), Media Production Unit, Otago Business School. University of Otago, New Zealand. Youtube

Box 12.4: Steve Anderson, the importance of managing worker fatigue during a crisis

In this video, Steve Anderson explains how fatigue can impact on all staff during a crisis and the importance of being mindful of the impacts of fatigue.


Source: Leckie, T. and Sheridan, L. (producers) (2023). Business for Good: Steve Anderson.
Molloy, J. (video and audio), Pearce, J. (coordinator), Hortle, L. (assistant), Media Production Unit, Otago Business School. University of Otago, New Zealand.  YouTube


Box 12.5: Steve Anderson, the importance of preparing an emergency response ahead of the emergency

In this video, Steve Anderson explains how an emergency simulation that went wrong 18 months prior to the Christchurch earthquake, fundamentally improved FoodStuff’s response to the real emergency.


Source: Leckie, T. and Sheridan, L. (producers) (2023). Business for Good: Steve Anderson.
Molloy, J. (video and audio), Pearce, J. (coordinator), Hortle, L. (assistant), Media Production Unit, Otago Business School. University of Otago, New Zealand.  YouTube

You can see from these videos, particularly the last one, that having a positive WHS culture of preparedness can help a business to navigate and survive such a difficult time.  WorkSafe in New Zealand has also continued to clarify which aspects of preparing for an earthquake should be included or excluded from WHS management (see Further Reading), but being prepared and caring about people was Steve Anderson’s guiding principles.


Further reading:

WorkSafe (2022) Dealing with earthquake-related health and safety risks: information for PCBUs and building owners. Available at: https://www.worksafe.govt.nz/laws-and-regulations/operational-policy-framework/operational-policies/dealing-with-earthquake-related/ (accessed 26/09/2023).



Imagine you are HR manager for a business that experiences a severe weather event.  What are your WHS obligations versus your social-moral responsibilities at such a critical time?


Steps to actually create your plan will not be covered here as it is appropriate to examine your legislative requirements, refer to industry standards and involve your staff in creating the plan, however, there are many resources available for businesses starting, or continually improving on, their emergency response plans (see Box 12.6).


Box 12.6: Resources on emergency plans and natural disasters

For resources on emergency plans visit:

In Australia:


In New Zealand:



For further resources on natural disasters visit:

In Australia:


In New Zealand:


Ideally organisations would have designed and well-practised emergency responses that will reduce any further potential harm during critical incidents.  It is useful, however, to gain insights from the broader field of crisis management to inform our understanding of the specific role of leadership during, and in the aftermath, of a larger scale critical incident.


Leadership during emergency responses (Crisis Management)

A crisis maybe defined as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending…especially one with possibility of a highly undesirable outcome” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.b, para. 3). Ideally, an emergency response would reduce confusion and focus staff on action during an incident, but even then the immediate consequences and recovery phase may prove complex for leaders.  Crises are important because they are low–probability but high–consequence situations that are time sensitive, and implicitly are high uncertainty (Pearson & Clair, 1998).  These are precisely the scenarios that are challenging for decision-making, as they invoke leaders to adopt their heuristics—mental shortcuts to decision-making that can be implicitly biased (Paulus et al,. 2022)—which may not lead to the best outcomes.

Eric McNulty is an expert on crisis management who suggests successful crisis leadership comprises:

  1. A capable team

The leader will surround themselves with a capable team who are empowered to make valuable contributions through decentralised decision-making.

This is important because, under the high task load conditions established by crises, leaders are vulnerable to heuristics (Paulus et al,. 2022) and shared decision-making has been determined to be most effective approach (Kunzle et al., 2010).

  1. Asking questions

The leader will ask questions to get other people’s perspectives and engage them in collaborative problem solving.

This keeps the leader informed while, again, ensuring that they are not impacted by heuristics and other potential decision-making biases (Thompson et al., 1998).


Box 12.7: Steve Anderson, the importance of asking questions during a crisis

In this video Steve Anderson outlines the importance of worker consultation and asking questions during crisis events.


Source: Leckie, T. and Sheridan, L. (producers) (2023). Business for Good: Steve Anderson. 
Molloy, J. (video and audio), Pearce, J. (coordinator), Hortle, L. (assistant), Media Production Unit, Otago Business School. University of Otago, New Zealand.  YouTube
  1. Having a focus on order, rather than control

The leader will recognise that they cannot fully control the situation so they focus on order by making sure everyone knows what is expected of them, and what they can expect from others.

When things are ‘out of control’ during a crisis it often activates the amygdala region of our brain.  The amygdala can trigger responses including fight, flight, fright, etc. (Schauer & Elbert, 2010); this does not help leaders, or their followers, achieve the vital common goals required for the organisation and its people to survive.  While some leaders might think they need to control everything to establish stability in crises, this is not achievable (McNulty & Marcus, 2020).  Instead, they must make  “ a conscious effort to deactivate [the] amygdala and activate [the] frontal lobes, the part of [the] brain responsible for rational, logical, thinking” (Holland, 2023, para. 22).  Creating order—clarity on what to do—might be what is required to help everyone step out of amygdala activation and back towards being able to use their executive brain functions, such as decision-making.

Box 12.8: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s statement to the nation (New Zealand) on Covid-19, March 21, 2020

In the following video, Jacinda Ardern introduces the COVID-19 national response levels and the behaviours expected of the New Zealand public.  This is an example of creating order rather than attempting to control this crisis situation.


Source: “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern statement to the nation on Covid-19, March 21“, RNZ, YouTube

For this successful crisis leadership ‘recipe’ to work, the leader must maintain the trust of their followers (staff and other relevant stakeholders who should be collaborating to move towards a common goal).  To do this, they must be rallying people towards an authentic common goal, they must have confidence, but it must be paired with humility, they must communicate the truth and it must be communicated clearly (McNulty et al., 2019)


Box 12.9: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s pre-lockdown casual communication with the people of New Zealand

In this video, Jacinda Ardern “communicates the truth” about COVID-19 case patterns ahead of a lockdown (i.e. cases will increase before any reduction in infections will occur).  Dressed informally (arguably a sign of “humility”), she conveys “confidence” in what New Zealand can achieve during the COVID-19 crisis if everyone collaborates to achieve COVID-19 elimination (the “common goal”).


Source: “Jacinda Ardern hosts coronavirus Q&A from home after putting child to bed“, Guardian News, YouTube

In contrast, it is common that leaders who hold a narrow view, end up managing rather than leading, by becoming overly involved in all decision-making, and becoming task oriented at the very time people need empathy and humanity.  So McNulty & Marcus suggest, “determine which decisions only you can make and delegate the rest. Establish clear guiding values and principles while foregoing the temptation to do everything yourself” (2020, p. 4).

Box 12.10: Eric McNulty, leading through a crisis


Source: “Eric McNulty on Leading through Crisis“, Eric McNulty, YouTube

Simulated emergency responses

Almost of equal harm to not having an emergency response plan, is having a plan without training workers on the actual emergency procedures and rehearsing these emergency responses under safe, practice, conditions.  Even when we offer drills, some staff will not take this simulation training seriously, so this type of training works best when it is embedded in a functional safety culture.  Some staff might be blasé about emergency responses because they believe their instincts will kick-in and protect them when faced with a critical situation, but this is simply not the case.  The following video demonstrates that without practice, people can be slow to react during an emergency response and this increases their risk of harm.

Box 12.11: Human behaviour during a fire alarm

The following video demonstrates why emergency response training is required.  Unexpectedly, human instinct is not a reliable safety mechanism in WHS management.


Source: “Human behaviour during a fire alarm | iHASCO“, IHasco, YouTube

The following workplace recognises that they might have some staff with poor attitudes towards emergency response drills.  In their emergency response training video they use humour to highlight poor worker attitudes and behaviours towards safety emergency response protocols, while reinforcing the desired emergency response procedures.

Box 12.12: A fire evacuation training video

This video demonstrates what workers are meant to due during a building fire evacuation and uses humour to point out common, but unacceptable, behaviours.


Source: “Building Evacuation due to Fire“, Faculty Development at Austin Community College, YouTube


In conclusion, the process you might undertake in your business to create an emergency response plan will vary, however, collaboration with staff to identify the hazards and create workable emergency responses is crucial.  Rolling out initial awareness training and following it up with simulated emergency response events will enable your business to, firstly, ensure the emergency response procedures documented on paper are actionable in practice and, secondly, make these response procedures memorable for staff should they ever be required in an actual emergency.  Finally, the leadership you demonstrate during any emergency event will fundamentally shape its outcome.



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