As extreme heat and possible hurricanes begin to develop across the United States, a recent survey finds employees may not be prepared for disasters or emergencies at work.
The survey, conducted by Staples.com, found that 50 percent of office workers have either never participated in safety drills or have only done so every few years.
Victor Sordillo, vice president and global technical services manager of loss control services for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, said that companies that do not develop sound emergency plans for employees during catastrophic situations are unlikely to be able to swiftly recover and restart business operations.
According to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, roughly one-fourth of businesses do not reopen after a major disaster.
“A major weather event can quickly cause property damage, inaccessibility of a site and loss of power,” Sordillo said. “Without planning, preparation and practice, a company will sustain a much greater loss in the event of an emergency. Each employee should understand the major vulnerabilities and [his or her] role in reducing loss and resuming operations.”
Fires and explosions occur in roughly 70,000 American businesses and cause nearly 200 employee fatalities annually, said Staples.com Public Relations Manager Mark Cautela. In addition, approximately 1,200 tornadoes occur every year in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and virtually all states have the possibility of experiencing a moderate to severe earthquake.
Cautela said that the most valuable asset that small businesses have is time, including the time that they’re able to stay open.
Typically, the longer a business is closed while recovering from a disaster, the greater the likelihood that its customers go elsewhere. “Even if the business is able to rebuild its physical location and replace its inventory, it may have lost customers in the meantime, who are not likely to return,” he said.
Make a Plan, Talk About It
Nearly half of the office managers polled said they handled all of the safety-related planning and ordering of products, but whether they are talking about those plans and services with employees is questionable: Seventy percent of managers say their company has an emergency communication plan, but nearly half of office workers are either unsure if such a plan exists or say their company does not have a plan.
Sordillo stressed that a means of communication with staff and emergency services is a necessity and that plans must be established to run the operation at the highest level possible if a facility is inaccessible. He advises businesses to conduct a thorough risk analysis to help reduce their downtime and increase the chances of a successful recovery. This can help executives understand the potential of all risks associated with an operation and allows them to develop a recovery plan.
Cautela said safety strategies need to be put into place to respond to all types of emergencies. “Emergencies can be small or large and can impact few or many employees, but it’s important to be prepared for all scenarios, including minor medical emergencies, power outages and smaller storms,” he said.
Small Businesses Must Take Extra Precautions
Cautela believes that small businesses have an even greater need to put an emergency plan in place so that they can “protect the lifeblood of their business, their employees, and ensure that they’ll be able to re-open for business as soon as possible.”
“[I]n a small business, sometimes it’s all you: you’re the IT person, the payroll person, the office manager and the salesperson,” he said. Small businesses are often run as sole proprietorships or limited partnerships so there is not as much to fall back on in a disaster situation when it comes to capital resources or human resources, he said.
In addition, small businesses are less likely to have multiple locations where they can temporarily move their operations in the case of an emergency. “A chain of hair salons could conceivably set up some staff temporarily in another location. But if the business is confined to a single location, that business is 100 percent closed,” Cautela said.
There are a number of supplies that experts recommend small businesses have for emergency situations, including first aid kits, fire extinguishers, personal protective equipment, flashlights, surge protectors, equipment to clean up and notify employees of spills, and, if possible, defibrillators.
Managers were almost 50 percent more likely than non-managers to be able to locate these safety-related supplies, suggesting that it is not enough for organizations to simply have these supplies if many office workers are unaware of where they are located.
Both experts agree that planning should extend to the entire business relationship, from suppliers to buyers.
“Businesses should make sure that both their customers and any critical vendors are aware of any disruption in business and that plans are in place to get back up and running as soon as possible,” Cautela said.
Eytan Hirsch is a staff writer for SHRM.