Hurricanes cause widespread destruction, and Sandy disrupted landline phone and cell phone communications when it affected the mid-Atlantic states in October 2012.

Planning Before It's Too Late

Ninety-one percent of businesses surveyed in 2007 by The Ad Council said it is "very" or "somewhat" important to take steps to prepare for a catastrophic disaster. Yet many companies fail to prepare.

A disaster in the workplace can be anything from a power outage to a fire to an employee's having a heart attack on the job. The risks are very real, yet only 38 percent of businesses with two to 9,999 employees reported they have an emergency plan in place in the event of a disaster, according to a 2007 survey from The Ad Council.

"As a former business owner myself, I think that a lot of times, most people are focused on the actual operating bottom line. And what we try to instill in companies is that this is just as important as your fiscal planning or your personnel planning," said Darryl Madden, director of FEMA's Ready campaign, which is designed to educate Americans to prepare and respond to emergencies. Ready Business is an extension of that campaign that seeks to raise the business community's awareness of the need for emergency planning. "It's just another aspect that has to be incorporated into the overall strategic objective of the company," Madden said, "because you can't wait until after the event before you are able to implement some type of plan."

John Barrett Jr. knows firsthand the importance of having a plan ready when disaster strikes. Barrett is the president of Scientific Investigation and Instruction Institute, an Austin, Texas, company located in the Echelon I building on Research Boulevard -- the same building that houses the Internal Revenue Service and was hit by a small plane on Feb. 18.

"The emergencies that we really planned for were things like a power outage or a computer crash, so we had backups of most, if not all, of our data. But, unfortunately, we didn't consider the building being the problem -- only our equipment," Barrett said. Scientific Investigation and Instruction Institute, also known as Si³, offers courses on asbestos remediation in Texas and surrounding states. Although Barrett was teaching classes 100 miles away in San Antonio when the plane struck the building, his administrative assistant, Will Zapalac, was in the office that day. "The plane hit on the north side of the building, kind of square in the middle at the juncture between the first and second floor. We were located on the first floor, on the south side of the building, about as far away as you could possibly get from the crash," Barrett said. "My administrative assistant was in the office at the furthest south office."

For Barrett, having a plan in place meant his company was able to maintain daily operations. Not until 10 days after the crash was he allowed back inside the building to see what could be salvaged. "Our backups were right there, near where all of our initial, original stuff was. So we didn't have any off-site storage. That was one of the things we took as a lesson. We had a lot of paper material that we had been in the process of digitizing, so a lot of the paper got destroyed. We probably have maybe 50 percent of that digitized," Barrett said. "The good news is our IT guy was able to retrieve the information from the hard drives, so we're not as bad off as we could have been. Unfortunately, that day my administrator, Will, was in the process of digitizing about a year's worth of material, and all of that stuff was loose on his desk. So we probably lost most of that."

The company has moved to a temporary location in Echelon Building II, and Barrett hopes to be back in the old location by the end of this year. "We really hadn't thought about an evacuation plan, but in that building we were just off the lobby, so it wasn't a big issue," Barrett said. "In our new temporary location, we're up on the third floor, and we've thought about that: which way would you go and how quickly could you get out."

Starting Your Disaster Plan
The threshold of what can be considered a disaster is local, said FEMA's Madden, "There's a variety of business interruptions that could take place, and it's always good for businesses to have a plan about what they’re going to do," he said. "We always want to make sure that people are accounted for -- that you have some type of system, you have an evacuation plan."

Communication is paramount. Team members should know whom to contact to get critical information, the alternative working location, and how to locate the important information needed to stay in business, such as computer files. "Make sure that you talk to your employees, and make sure that they're ready, as well. Because if people are not prepared to deal with disasters on a personal level, chances are that they're not going to be able to come in to work to support you to carry out your business function," he said.

Fire Safety and Evacuations
A fire is one specific example of a disaster that could paralyze a workplace with no plan in place. Many workplaces include hazards that could trigger a fire, such as overloaded electrical systems.

"When you start to look at the number of electronic components that we now have in office buildings, the concern with those is to make sure that the electrical systems for that environment have been designed and sized to accommodate plugging in phones, computers, printers, fax machines, photocopy machines, plus the normal contingent of things you see in an office building, like light fixtures," said Robert Solomon, a National Fire Protection Association division manager.

Even common appliances such as coffeemakers, microwaves, and space heaters can be an ignition source if used improperly. "If I forget to shut the coffeemaker off at the end of the day and I've got some papers nearby, well, once again, I've introduced, inadvertently, an ignition source," he said, "So if a building owner and manager is going to allow those sorts of things to be used outside the traditional kitchen area, then there need to be some written directions, plans, and reminders to people to not overcook the popcorn in the microwave or to get coffeemakers with an automatic shutoff feature."

An evacuation plan is especially important in case of a fire. Employees should know what the evacuation protocol is and what the fire alarm sounds like. A good way to practice and keep employees informed is through fire drills. "Typically in an office building, if you can get one drill in a year, that's real good," Solomon said. "Things get a little different in a high-rise building. That can be a very long process, so maybe the drill is no more than getting people to the exit stair and getting them to come down two or three levels."

SCA and Medical Emergencies
Having a plan for medical emergencies, such as sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) at work, can make a difference between life and death. "For every minute that passes, you lose about 10 percent of the patient's ability to survive. After five minutes we're at about 50 percent, and we typically don't have ambulances arriving that quickly,” said Rita Herrington, a family nurse practitioner, paramedic, and chair of the American Heart Association's First Aid Committee. "In some cases that does happen, but a defibrillator, for example, could save the life of someone within those precious few minutes."

Fire-Rescue Med, taking place May 1-5 in Las Vegas, includes two awards for organizations doing good work to save sudden cardiac arrest victims.Such medical emergencies are uncommon at work. "Statistics that I’ve heard are that if you have a business and 500 people walk through your door every day, you'll have a cardiac arrest once every five years," she said. "There are those medical emergencies, too, that are unexpected, especially as we have our baby boomers and our aging workers. There certainly are going to be, I would think, more opportunities for medical incidents. As that population grows, it would seem that having a defibrillator or having people trained is going to be increasingly more important and probably increase our ability to save lives."

Herrington said a basic first aid course does a good job of providing training for a variety of circumstances. Employees can take a course online, or the company can have someone come on site to train staffers. A further step is EMT or first responder training. Once the staff or designated employees have been trained, Herrington said it is important to develop a written plan and frequently review it. "I think that the key is, once you have your first aid team in place, making sure that you review with them on a regular basis. It doesn't have to be an extravagant mock disaster. You can have review over lunch and just discuss specific scenarios and roles and responsibilities," she said.

Business owners realize the importance of planning; 91 percent of businesses surveyed in 2007 by The Ad Council said it is "very" or "somewhat" important to take steps to prepare for a catastrophic disaster. Yet with only 39 percent actually having a plan in place, many may not survive even one disaster.

"Businesses exist to provide service, and when that service is discontinued, obviously, that is ultimately going to impact the bottom line and maybe impact the ultimate livelihood of that business in the long run," said Madden, FEMA's Ready campaign director. "Particularly when you're talking about small to medium businesses, ultimately that is going to affect their financial bottom line. So it's critical that they incorporate this type of planning into their long-term strategic plan."

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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