Coping with a big bang

Alan Warner, like most residents in and around Hemel Hempstead, was asleep on the morning of Sunday 11 December when the nearby Buncefield oil depot spectacularly went up in flames. “It went off at about 6am,” he recalls.

“I live 10 miles from Hemel Hempstead, but it was still a massive explosion, a one-off boom, followed by car alarms going off and a huge plume of black smoke.

“At first we thought it was something going off in London or a plane crash at Luton. I was at police HQ by 8am,” he adds.

For Warner – director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council – and many other HR professionals in the area, things have not been the same since.

The fact that the explosion took place on a Sunday morning was a blessing in that no one was killed or badly injured. But with offices and warehouses damaged, workers and their families displaced, schools closed and transport and supply links disrupted, it has been a trying month-and-a-half since.

Many people are still feeling the effects. In Warner’s case, with experience of dealing with disasters such as the Hatfield and Potters Bar rail crashes behind him, a well-rehearsed major incident plan immediately swung into action, led initially by the emergency services, which were quickly on the scene. But there was a lot to be handled by the council, including health advice, dealing with the schools situation (several had their windows blown in), setting up evacuation centres and social work support for families, sourcing clothing and masks, finding cranes and lifting gear and managing the flow of information.

“It pretty much followed a plan. But it would have been a very different had it happened during working hours,” says Warner.

“We have plans and we do rehearse them. Training is very important. Even if the plan you have does not deal with every crossed ‘t’ and dotted ‘i’, it creates a style of behaviour. Everyone just clicks into action,” he explains.

“It all went according to how we would have expected it to go. But we still have some 4,000 people who have been displaced and a number of businesses that were damaged and are not back in,” he says.

One company back on its feet is online fashion retailer ASOS, which celebrated last week after dealing with orders for the first time since the explosion. The company’s warehouse is 700m from the Buncefield site and was badly damaged in the blast, even though it was shielded by taller buildings. The explosion rendered stock worth 3.8m completely unsaleable.

“Our head of logistics called me at 6.15am, and my first thought was: ‘Oh God, we have a night shift on,’ but then I remembered they do not do Saturday night, so we were very lucky no one was injured,” recalls head of HR Louise McCabe. “If it had been the next day, the dock doors would have been open and 300 people would have been inside.”

Blast damage

The blast blew in ASOS’s warehouse doors and then pulled them out again, while the office inside the warehouse was completely destroyed and the sprinkler system had drenched all the stock. “It was five days before we could get on the site. When we went inside, it was carnage, with light fittings smashed, water and glass all over the floor,” says McCabe.

From an HR perspective, the most urgent job on that Sunday morning was to telephone the 110 permanent and 200 agency workers who had been due to turn up at 10am the next morning.

“Luckily, the agencies had out-of-hours’ contacts, which helped. I also spoke to the finance director, who assured me we had the insurance in place to cover for losses and that people would be paid,” she says.

Customers, the press and the London Stock Exchange were all informed and ASOS’s shares temporarily suspended.

“The executive board gathered the next day in London and over the next week we moved the customer care team, some of whom live in Luton, to our building in London because they had to refund 19,000 customers,” says McCabe.

“We also moved the returns team to our former site in Amersham –- which, fortunately, was still available – and got suppliers’ goods diverted to a third-party site in Peterborough,” she adds.

A big part of the HR role was providing reassurance, support and communication with workers. “We wrote a letter straight away, telling people exactly what the situation was, reassuring them that their wages would be covered, telling them where they would be working and explaining about the health and safety provisions. We even carried on with the Christmas party,” she explains.

“Everyone pulled together. There was a definite buzz. Our creative team even went over and helped the customer care team.

“Once we got back on the site, we realised there was no heating because there had been a gas leak, so we bought a hot lunch for everyone each day and ensured people could leave at 4pm so they weren’t working in the cold and dark,” she adds.

McCabe believes the key lesson for HR in this is to have an up-to-date business continuity plan in place. “Keep a copy of all your contacts and your recovery plan at home. I had all the numbers at home, and if I had not been able to ring around, it would have been a nightmare,” she says. “Also make sure people tell you when they change their mobile numbers.”

Another company working hard to pick up the pieces has been DSG International (DSGi), the high-street electricals operator behind Dixons, Currys and PC World, which has its HQ in Hemel Hempstead.

Again, because of the time of the explosion, fortunately no staff were injured, but 1,500 were displaced. Some were able to return to work after a week, but for others it will be up to three months before things get back to normal, explains Helen Andrews, director of UK HR shared services for DSGi.

Where the HR team – which was itself unable to return to work until eight days after the explosion – was able to help most was in managing communications with employees about things such as when they could return to work, what changes were being made and so on. “In addition, the HR shared services function organised a small taskforce, based at our Stevenage and Borehamwood sites, where the critical payroll and administration tasks (including the Hemel Hempstead postal service) were processed to meet the business requirements over the peak period,” explains Andrews.

Supply chain

Supply chain difficulties were the biggest problem for fast-food giant McDonald’s, which had two key suppliers – a baker and a distributor – based near the site, says UK people vice-president David Fairhurst.

Although both successfully redeployed their workers, 380 from one and 121 from the other, there was disruption. “Our bread supply, for instance, was reduced by 40%, and some restaurants were forced to close for a short time,” he explains.

The company’s Jarman Park restaurant in Hemel Hempstead got stuck in and helped out by feeding members of the emergency services who were tackling the blaze.

“We had a lot of people who worked through the festive season to minimise the impact on our customers,” says Fairhurst. “The lengths that staff went to were unbelievable. But there is only so far you can plan for a disaster of this nature.”

Five top tips for dealing with disaster

  • Have a contingency plan that is up-to-date, understood, practised and communicated.
  • Keep contact details of key staff members at your house, not just at work.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate with people at all levels.
  • Don’t forget things such as feeding workers and having relief shifts available.
  • Try to build an atmosphere of trust and solidarity.

Eyewitness accounts

Many Hemel Hempstead workers witnessed and were closely affected by the Buncefield blast. Here is a selection of accounts from the time:

“I got a call from our operations director at around 7am. He asked me if I was sitting down. I said, ‘No, I’m lying down, of course’ – I was in bed. He told me to turn on the TV and the first thing I saw was Hemel Hempstead burning. The honest answer? My first reaction was:
‘Oh shit’.”
Jeff Jamet, managing director of wines and spirits wholesaler WaverleyTBS, which had depots next door to the site.
The Independent

“As far as I could see, all of the building around me had been blown away and I was sitting practically on the edge of the concrete ceiling.”
Raheel Ashraf, a security guard in High Wycombe.
Bucks Free Press

“Before six o’clock I pulled up into the car park and I was walking in, ready to go into the building to get my truck to go out on the road and then I just saw this great big ball of fire come up behind the building. I still didn’t know what it was at that point – it was about 50 metres wide – and then the loudest explosion, the loudest bang I’ve ever heard in my life. It took me off my feet. I’m not quite sure whether my knees had buckled or whether the blast had taken me off my feet, I was just in shock at that point. I got up, turned around and just ran as fast as I could straight to my car.”
Paul Turner, Buncefield tanker driver.

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