Companies in all industries can look to FEMA, the American Red Cross, and other local and federal organizations for information on how to begin creating an emergency preparedness plan.

Preparing for the Worst

Natural disasters are not falling by the wayside. In fact, they seem to be more frequent than ever before. Here's why it is important to be prepared.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey last year, 71,770 buildings were damaged. Of those, 5,051 underwent major damage and 501 were destroyed. Many of these buildings were businesses, and several of the businesses did not have proper insurance plans or emergency preparedness plans in place, putting both their employees and the future of their company at risk.

The threat natural disasters pose is real, and it is not fading away anytime soon. Many natural disasters have occurred in the past few years alone: Sandy, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, wildfires and flooding in Colorado and Texas, among others. Getting the proper natural disaster preparedness plan in place for your company is the key to ensuring both your employees and your business survive.

"Many employers are focused on financial success and establishing their company," said Linda Sherrard, Safety Consultant II at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety's Central Prison Healthcare Complex in Raleigh, N.C. "They are good people who overlook the 'what if' of emergency planning in the race to succeed in business. Oftentimes, employers delay having a plan in place, thinking it will never happen to them, and the system is overwhelmed when something does happen."

Taking a few weeks out of the year to create a plan and train employees on that plan may seem like a burden, but it could mean the difference between a company's being destroyed after a natural disaster and bouncing back quickly.

The Importance of Having a Plan in Place
The climate of natural disaster preparedness has changed drastically over the last few decades. Companies used to sound an alarm, make sure their employees were safe, and try to get back on their feet as quickly as possible after a disaster. Now, companies have to reach their employees in a multifaceted way to ensure their safety. Companies also have to put more legwork into creating a business continuity plan in the event that a disaster does occur so financial burdens do not overwhelm the business.

According to Sherrard, the most important thing a business can do is have the tools to meet the unexpected. Though severe, detrimental flooding may seem unlikely in Arizona, for example, businesses should never rule it out completely. Taking a handful of days to create a flood preparedness plan may seem like an inconvenience, but struggling to get a business back in shape after a flood happens is an infinitely worse inconvenience.

Angelo Pinheiro, a senior HES professional at Marathon Oil, echoed Sherrard's statement. "A lot of companies assume that government agencies should take care of them in the event of a natural disaster," he said. "And [therefore], they haven't looked at the business continuity destruction that those disasters can have on their bottom line."

How to Create a Plan
Creating a plan starts by acknowledging that no area in the United States is exempt from a natural disaster. (The map on FEMA's homepage, www.fema.gov, confirms this.)

"We've had earthquakes, massive floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards," Pinheiro said. "All of these events have affected all of the areas of the United States and have caused massive destruction. Natural disasters are all over the place."

Companies in all industries can look to FEMA, the American Red Cross, and other local and federal organizations for information on how to begin creating an emergency preparedness plan. While creating a plan is important in every industry, it's more than important in remote industries, such as oil & gas and construction: It's essential.

"If you've got people working 15 or even 100 miles away on a pipeline and there's an impending tornado in that region, you have to be able to contact them and give them enough time and notice to leave the job, secure the site, and go to a safe place," said Pinheiro, who stressed the importance of oil & gas companies having an emergency natural disaster plan in place.

Another step to take in mind when creating a plan is involving employees in the process. Joe Bader, vice president of the Safety and Security Group at Federal Signal, employees often know more about a building or job site than their managers. "In work facilities, oftentimes the employee has a better idea of where they need to go or what they need to do in certain situations because they know their work environment so intimately," he said.

Involving employees "helps each employee feel as though the company has his or her best interest and safety in mind," Sherrard agreed.

Hurdles to Creating a Plan
Getting a plan in place comes with its challenges, she said. One challenge is "accurately assessing the needs of the company and employees and allotting time to complete and maintain the information," Sherrard continued. "All emergency information needs to be reviewed and updated as things change. A two-year-old employee contact list will be out of date. Think of your disaster plan as a living entity; it has to be updated regularly or it dies a slow death from inaccuracy."

Another challenge is ensuring communication efforts work with employees of all ages. While disaster preparedness apps and text alerts may be the most efficient way to communicate an emergency plan to young employees at a remote site, it may not always work with an aging workforce. Workers in their fifties, sixties, and even seventies may not be equipped to communicate in this way, and employers have to take this into consideration when creating a plan. One way to tackle this challenge is ensuring you are letting your employees know of a natural disaster in several ways, Bader said. For example, don't just send a text message--sound a loud siren in outdoor or remote areas, make phone calls, send emails, and more. Research shows around 10 percent of people don't listen to a warning the first time around. Hitting them with the information in more than one outlet can ensure they take the threat seriously, while also covering the bases with employees who may not be tech savvy.

An Unfortunate Reality
What it boils down to is that no matter what, natural disasters will occur. Companies cannot prevent the elements. But what they can do is have the strongest possible plan in place to deal with a disaster when it does strike. "Essentially, I can't stop a tornado from ripping through a building," said Bader. "There are some things you just can't stop. All someone can do is make sure they have a program in place to repair their business, get back online, and make sure their workers are safe. Sometimes your plan is, 'How are we going to rebuild?'"

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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