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HR Professionals in Japan Shift to Emergency Mode
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  3/11/2011
 

Human resource professionals in Japan have switched into emergency mode in the wake of a record earthquake March 11, 2011, that devastated part of the country, killing thousands, immobilizing transit and turning schools into evacuation centers.

The quake, measuring a magnitude of 9.0, struck near the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan, at 2:46 p.m. local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The quake is said to be the fifth-largest in recorded history. It generated a tsunami in Japan that measured 33 feet high and swept aside homes, tossed boats inland, crumbled walls and pushed waves of mud and debris into affected areas.

Jun Kabigting, who heads the 450-member Japan HR Society in Tokyo, noted that although the quake’s epicenter is far from Tokyo—Honshu is 231 miles northeast of Tokyo—he saw buildings “swaying back and forth” from the quake’s intensity.

Emergency Shelter Sought

“In our own building and nearby buildings as well, I’ve seen people going under their tables for cover,” he told SHRM Online in an e-mail shortly before midnight on the day of the quake. He serves as managing director of HR Central K.K., a Tokyo-based HR and recruiting firm. “So far we haven’t heard of any casualties from members.”

In Tokyo, public building such as schools were turned into evacuation centers, he noted, and lobbies of office buildings were crowded with people seeking shelter from the lingering cold weather. With train stations closed to the public and traffic snarled, he saw huge crowds of people walking to their homes.

Several of his members were in emergency mode, canceling all interviews and meetings as they started to attend to employees and activate their emergency response and business continuity plans, he said.

“In most, if not all, of our members’ companies, their employees are required to conduct annual evacuation drills for fire, earthquake and other emergencies. Employees stranded are allowed to stay at their workplaces overnight, with most managers staying put to show solidarity with their employees,” Kabigting explained.

“More progressive companies have [business continuity plans] or emergency response plans,” he said, adding that he hoped that they were able to active those plans. Because of the timing of the quake, Kabigting stated, he did not have information as to how HR was assisting employers, employees and employees’ families. 

Damage Concentrated in North

Most of the quake’s damage occurred in the northern part of Japan, including Hokkaido and Miyage, according to Kabigting. There was a massive fire in Miyage as a result of the quake, he added, and nuclear power plants were in various stages of crisis.

While Tokyo did not suffer major power disruptions, there was a long power interruption in nearby prefectures such as Kanagawa, Kawasaki and Yokohama that has since been resolved, Kabigting said.

Kabigting told SHRM Online that members of the HR Society had been calling to provide updates on how they were dealing with the disaster.

“Those with retail stores or shops made a decision not to open operations over the weekend in the light of massive earthquake,” he said. “This is to give their employees the time to be with their families. And, for business reasons, they didn’t think people would be in a shopping mood.”

Many of the businesses were just beginning the process of accounting for their employees and their families, he said.

“Sadly, we do have members who have operations in the hard-stricken areas, and they are currently in the process of contacting or accounting for their employees,” Kabigting said. “They did express that business will be severely affected by this quake, which will put additional pressures on HR to deliver.”

Organizations Pledge Support

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which serves members in Japan, issued a statement March 11 on the disaster. “The Society for Human Resource Management extends its sincerest sympathies to the people of Japan during this tragic and difficult time,” said Henry G. (Hank) Jackson, interim president and CEO, speaking on behalf of SHRM’s more than 250,000 members in 140 countries. “SHRM stands ready to support its members and the HR community in Japan, which will play a critical role in dealing with the many workplace issues that result from this widespread disaster.”

The American Red Cross has created a donation designation for its disaster relief efforts for persons affected in Japan and throughout the Pacific. For information on making a donation, visit http://american.redcross.org/rcchatnews.

Additionally, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was working closely with the Japanese Red Cross to launch a special Family Links website, http://www.icrc.org/familylinks, to help people who are seeking to re-establish contact with family and friends, according to a statement from the American Red Cross.

More information on finding a person in the affected areas can be found at http://newsroom.redcross.org/2011/03/11/disaster-update-family-linking-for-japan-earthquake-and-tsunami/.

Elsewhere, Kauai was the first of Hawaii’s islands that the tsunami hit, and in Maui waves reached seven feet high, according to news reports.

Staff writer Bill Leonard contributed to this report.

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