Smartphone technology is making it easier for employees to quickly access disaster plans, with or without a WiFi connection.

Smartphones Are Employees' Lifeline During Disasters

Smartphone technology is making it easier for employees to quickly access disaster plans, with or without a WiFi connection.

Today, organizations must be prepared to tackle a variety of potential disasters that range from extreme weather to fires, chemical spills, and explosions, among others. And while, most companies have disaster preparedness plans, they are often presented to employees as extensive paper-based manuals, posters, flip books, building diagrams, and websites that often aren't up to date or available to those who need them during a crisis.

According to a recent survey by Staples, Inc., fewer than half of employees think their employers are prepared for snow and ice storms or catastrophic events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes. As a result, and often due to a lack of resource accessibility, when a disaster strikes, workers are often left unprepared to take action and instead are reliant on first responders. However, what happens when law enforcement, EMS personnel, and/or fire service personnel aren't able to respond due to the sheer magnitude of the disaster or because their own safety and well-being is threatened?

To empower employees to best prepare and respond to disasters, companies need to take a closer look at how smartphone technology can support and extend existing emergency plan efforts. By mobilizing disaster preparedness information and putting it in the hands of employees via their mobile devices, organizations can give employees the safety resources necessary to help them and their co-workers survive during a disaster.

Smartphones Improve Access to Disaster Preparedness Plans
With the vast majority of workers now using smartphone devices to get information and news, the way businesses share disaster preparedness information and how employees retrieve and use that information is also changing. By securely loading appropriate parts of a company’s disaster or business continuity plan onto a smartphone device, organizations are making their crisis information more accessible and actionable for their employees–enabling personal resilience when a disaster strikes.

To avoid the information overload that inevitably happens with inches-thick binders of disaster preparedness plans, best practice mobilized plans only include the most relevant and actionable information that can be utilized before, during, and following a disaster. Critical to these efforts is a concentration on problems that are most likely to occur in each organization's particular setting, along with clear step-by-step instructions, procedures, photos, building diagrams, and other helpful visuals that will aid in each mobile user's safety.

Through smartphone technology, disaster preparedness procedures can more easily be shared and tailored for individuals based on a specific type of disaster event. Based on the scenario, organizations should ensure that safety plans on mobile devices include distilled, step-by-step instructions for particular buildings. Information should be continuously updated to reflect new construction, renovations, phone number updates and other critical changes.

Additionally, critical disaster preparedness information must be available regardless of whether communications technology is available and/or accessible. Previous natural disasters—ranging from Hurricane Sandy to Oklahoma tornadoes—tell us that cellular and Internet services are frequently down or overloaded during emergency situations. It is important to anticipate how workers will respond without these communication conveniences in place and offer an alternative. Smartphone technology, however, is making it easier for employees to quickly access disaster plans, with or without a WiFi connection.

SMobile Grants Greater Customization
Another important point from the recent Staples study is that 60 percent of businesses are unprepared for disasters and emergencies. However, smartphones can help workplaces become better prepared to survive. By adding mobile technologies to the disaster preparedness mix, companies can leverage their plans and make use of all of the benefits that mobile has to offer.

For example, corporations frequently manage multiple facilities and locations, so proactively communicating proper information and instructions to employees at each building location regarding possible emergency scenarios is critical. Various types of facilities require different protocols, so organizations should examine needs and establish resource contacts for construction sites, manufacturing facilities, traditional office locations, remote workers, etc. When this information is pushed into the hands of all employees based on their role and location, they can respond accordingly when needed and in a manner that supports security as well as their company’s operations during a disaster.

If a major auto plant is situated in an area that is frequently hit by hurricanes, for example, employees must be apprised of the backup plan if their site becomes unavailable. Pertinent information for specific scenarios might include where displaced employees should report, how they should communicate with each other, and to whom they should report. Incident reporting and use of videos and photos also offer a near real-time capability for organizations to react quicker and make adjustments in their recovery efforts.

Cooperation in a Growing, Globally Diverse Workforce
Disaster preparedness plans are not one-size-fits-all. They must address each location and its specific employee needs in order to be effective, mitigate risks, and ensure safety. Because of the often dispersed nature and varying shifts of corporate employees, mobility plays a big role in ensuring a cooperative and uniformly planned response to crisis situations.

For example, disaster preparedness plans can be designed and disseminated based on the particular stakeholder’s role at the company or location via mobile. This might mean based on department, managers/executive teams, manufacturing plants, construction sites, and so forth. It is important to provide each group the right level of information so all content is relevant to them and contains the appropriate contacts and phone numbers. As audiences are changing at any given time, many organizations are using mobile solutions to establish user profiles and adjust which audiences receive particular information. This keeps the content as meaningful as possible and allows senior administrators to pivot as a particular crisis changes in shape and magnitude.

Also, as organizations' employee populations become continually more diverse, it is imperative to consider a collective view of the organization’s employee population when devising disaster preparedness plans and communicating them to the workforce. This must incorporate support for multilingual employees or those with disabilities (e.g., vision, mobility, developmental, psychiatric, hearing). All employees should benefit from the same level of safety preparedness in their work environments. Smartphone technology can help present plans in different ways, offering sophisticated capabilities that can provide greater support for an entire workforce population.

Mobile Supports Compliance Efforts
From a regulatory standpoint, companies throwing caution to the wind when it comes to safety precautions and disaster preparedness face potential legal liabilities and non-compliance penalties from government organizations. Recognizing the power of mobile, some companies are capturing and reporting on compliance via mobile in a variety of situations. This includes businesses reporting on hazmat and chemical materials, along with the organization's safety hazard plans, to community first responders per the EPA's Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA Act) regulations. There are also benefits in utilizing mobile to comply with specific OSHA regulations.

For example, for one manufacturing company with 24/7 operations at various large industrial facilities, preparing for disasters and ensuring response plans are up to date and appropriately communicated is critical to maintaining OSHA standards compliance. Due to the nature of the materials handled by the company, plans must change often to meet federal requirements; any time a new regulation is introduced, disaster plans are updated. Smartphone technology helps companies offer the most current information to employees where they will always have access to it.

Smartphones Change the Safety Landscape
Smartphones truly are changing the way people live and often how they survive. Prior to any disaster, it is critical for organizations to prepare employees and provide them with detailed disaster response plans so that they are empowered and more resilient to handle these situations in the event that first responders are not available. Ultimately, the best way to ensure preparation and accessibility to key emergency preparedness information is to proactively arm employees with step-by-step instructions that are available in the moment of need.

Smartphones, combined with preparation, offer workers an opportunity to become more personally resilient and better respond to disasters.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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