Preparing for an emergency may seem like an unrealistic expectation; it’s like preparing for a surprise. How do you prepare for something you cannot see coming? How do you protect your employees and your company from a devastating emergency? Continue reading to see how to prepare your organization for emergencies that may come your way.

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What Is Emergency Preparedness in the Workplace?

Emergency preparedness in the workplace should create a blueprint for all employees as to what will happen in case of an emergency. The plan should give instructions such as evacuation procedures and routes, first aid locations, hazards within the workplace, and could even outline details on rescue and medical duties for specific workers. Ensure some off-site or mobile contact information for all on-site employees and vendors to ensure safety and proper follow-through. Emergency preparedness requires taking large- and small-scale situations and walking through them step by step to prepare a plan that will protect your organization and the employees, customers, or vendors within it as well.

Why Is Emergency Preparedness in the Workplace Important?

According to OSHA, an effective workplace emergency plan is critical to every organization. Let’s look into the specifics as to why this is important.

  • Safety. Keeping employees free from harm is a responsibility of the employer, but extra preparedness can keep first responders from catastrophe as well. When it comes to overall safety, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.
  • Minimize damage. With preparation, your organization can be adequately prepared for the emergency and minimize non-physical damage. While you cannot control the extent of the damage, an emergency preparedness plan allows your organization to mitigate damage to the environment, equipment, machinery, tools, etc. by implementing your preparedness steps.
  • Minimize downtime. After an emergency, chaos can ensue. It is so important to have an emergency preparedness plan in place so that when the situation is defused, employees are able to return to work—either remote, onsite, or at a safe location—without much downtime for them or your company. Bouncing back after an emergency can set one organization above another in the long run.

Types of Emergency Preparedness in the Workplace

The scope of possible emergencies to plan for is overwhelming. This list, while incomplete, will help you consider common types of emergencies that could apply to your geographical region or industry.

  • Natural disasters and severe weather
  • Challenges from outside your facility, such as social unrest, radiation or chemical spills, etc.
  • Bioterrorism
  • Workplace violence/active shooter
  • Fire or flood
  • Injury/medical emergency
  • Power failure
  • Hazardous material spills
  • Public health (epidemics, etc.)

Phases of Emergency Preparedness in the Workplace

There are four key elements to managing your emergency preparedness. In order to be effective, your plans should include the four steps below.  The hope here is that your organization has prevented emergencies to the extent possible, prepared for them to the fullest extent of your abilities, will respond appropriately to protect everyone present and the company as a whole, and will be able to recover as quickly as possible and return to normal operations.

Prevention

Emergencies can be on a grand or small scale. Wherever possible, your organization should have policies and procedures in place to minimize the occurrence of any emergency. This can include following building codes and zoning, installing protective shutters, and company-wide surveillance, to name a few. Any measures your organization takes to reduce the chances of an emergency happening or reduce the damaging effects of an unavoidable emergency falls into the prevention step.

Preparation

Any and all activities and procedures to make sure your organization is ready to jump into action when an emergency takes place is part of the preparation step. Depending on your organization, this can include mutual aid agreements, where you establish together with local authorities the specific level of assistance that can be provided from your area’s first responders, or a basic training from first responders to prepare the employees within your organization.

Response

Acting quickly during an emergency can set you up for success. The way you respond can directly correlate to how well your organization comes out on the other side from this emergency. When it comes to the actual emergency, without an organizational plan in place, the response step could be chaotic. The actions that happen before, during, and immediately following an emergency are the response phase and should be focused on the safety of all involved and minimizing damage and downtime.

Recovery

After the imminent danger has subsided, returning to normal conditions can be challenging. For example, structural damage that needs to be addressed could result in loss of workspace for quite some time. The hope is that with your emergency plan in place, your organization can quickly implement a work-from-home option or an off-site location for your employees to safely work.

How to Be Prepared for an Emergency in the Workplace

Realistically, the best way to be prepared for an emergency is to take a deep breath and put into practice all you’re learning through this article. Let’s look at how you can apply it to your organization’s emergency planning.

Step 1: Establish a Team

Creating a specific emergency preparedness team is a great start. This allows you to select representatives from all departments and levels as well as support from senior management. With the support of a diverse group, you should be able to provide your organization with a comprehensive idea on how to move through an emergency for all levels of employees, departments, and locations.

Step 2: Assess risks

The team should assess all angles and potential risks that your organization can face in the event of an emergency. They should walk through large- and small-scale emergencies, assess each risk that arises, and consider how to mitigate and/or prepare to meet each one.

Step 3: Develop

A plan should start to form from the team at this point. While the organization’s outcome may be different if there is a water leak vs if there is a major hurricane causing drastic flood damage, the emergency preparedness plan should be comprehensive enough to cover both situations. The plan should include things such as establishing safe areas, creating an off-site important-documentation archive, an internal business emergency contact list, and local emergency numbers.

Step 4: Implement and Test

Once the plan has started to gain some traction and is taking shape from the development phase, it’s time to implement and test. Evaluate training that needs to take place for your employees or equipment that needs to be obtained. Communicate the emergency preparedness plan to your employees multiple times a year, and hold drills or simulations to encourage focus on the plan.

Step 5: Improve

Constant improvement is the key to an effective emergency-preparedness plan. In HR we are nothing if not effective change agents because our only constant is change. This situation is no different. Do not rely on old or outdated emergency preparedness plans. Evaluate the effectiveness of these plans at least every other year. Important company contact lists change, vital documents may have been updated, even the location could have changed; it’s critical that you adjust your plans accordingly.

An In-Depth Look at Planning for Natural Disasters

No matter where you are in the world, there’s always a risk of natural disaster. Having a plan for what leaders, managers, and employees should do in the case of a natural disaster – and in particular, the natural disasters most common for your location – will save lives. 

“Every state in the United States has their own unique natural disasters to be prepared for, whether it is tornadoes in Illinois or snow in Utah. The Society of Human Resource Management recommends that executives drive this plan with HR providing key support through the development and execution of the plan.” – Ryan Archibald

Create Your Disaster Recovery Plan

Partner with your facilities, technology, and leadership teams. Work with a workplace safety expert. Then, think through the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. This includes:

  • Who is most at risk in case of a natural disaster, who needs to receive workplace safety training, and who will conduct the trainings 
  • What employees will need to feel safe, protected, and supported
  • Where employees can learn about this new policy
  • When employees should be trained, when they should be alerted to a disaster, and when is the right time to send on-site staff home
  • Why you’re implementing new workplace policies in the first place

Communicate Your Plan to Employees

Once you have a plan in place, strategize about how you will roll the plan out to all employees. Introducing your plan will require consistent and timely communications that meet employees where they are:

  • In team meetings. Ask your leaders to communicate the new policy during regular team meetings and 1:1s. Encourage leaders to maintain two-way dialogue about workplace safety, and ask employees for their input. 
  • Online. Post your workplace safety policy on the company intranet, include the update in your internal email newsletter, or dedicate a Slack channel to disaster planning and recovery. 
  • In common spaces. Don’t discount the power of a flier in a break room, a placard at the reception desk, or anywhere else a physical reminder can be posted and viewed by your in-office employees.

Pay Employees Full Wages, Paid Leave, and/or Hazard Pay

Your company should offer full wages, paid leave, and/or hazard pay (where applicable) in instances where employees are working under dire conditions. Doing so demonstrates to your employees that you care about supporting their health and well-being even when they can’t come to work – or in this case, need to leave early for their own safety. 

“Send people home if it’s safe or have people stay home and not come to work without any worry of PTO or being paid. We cannot control the weather and it is the fault of no one what nature’s plans are. At the end of the day, a company is nothing without its workers safe and healthy. And they will be more likely to stay somewhere that values their safety and life over the profits of the company.” – Arielle Paulson

A Sample Emergency Preparedness Plan

The CDC and OSHA have provided resources to assist your organization to develop the best emergency preparedness plan for your company. You can utilize one specific plan provided below and run with it, or tailor it to your specific organization by pulling items from each plan and allowing your team to compile one that best fits your company.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Emergency Preparedness in the Workplace

Any action your organization can take to effectively manage an emergency situation is an example of emergency preparedness. This can vary from fire drills to training programs for workplace violence.
An emergency preparedness plan is something your organization could quickly implement in the event of a large- or small-scale disaster.
Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe workplace for their employees. Employees, customers or vendors could sue the company for gross negligence should injuries arise due to a lack of emergency protocols.

Shalie has over 4 years of experience working in a variety of HR positions and organizations including: working as an HR department “of one”, working with a start-up based in Europe, to working in a fully established robust USA based HR department. Shalie has experience in multiple states and countries with all aspects of the HR spectrum. She has a passion to share her knowledge and experience to benefit the HR profession!

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