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June 13, 2014
Survey: Only half of employees think their companies are prepared for emergencies

A new survey by office supply company Staples found that only half of employees believe their workplace is prepared for a severe emergency. And nearly two-thirds polled said recent natural disasters have not led to employers reassessing company safety plans. How would your employees assess your preparedness? Keep reading to learn why it matters.

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With winter storms a distant memory, who needs to be thinking about emergency planning this time of year? You do! The Atlantic hurricane season is officially under way, and wild fires have been plaguing California, among other states.

In its third annual survey on the topic, Staples notes that in the past 6 months, nearly half of businesses have closed at some point due to severe weather. Said Bob Risk, national safety, health, and wellness manager for Staples, “Safety is a top priority for employers, but there is still more planning and training that can be done to improve safety in the workplace.”

Top challenges and solutions

Risk noted that although employers are becoming more aware of the need for emergency planning, that awareness hasn’t necessarily translated into action. Emergency planning, in many cases, falls on the list of tasks companies know they should be doing, but doesn’t become an urgent priority until it’s too late.

However, when it comes to emergency preparation, advance planning is crucial. In the event of a natural disaster or other emergency, suppliers and shipping companies may also be impacted, making the task of obtaining necessary items more challenging. And even without those issues, emergency supplies may be difficult to find when they’re needed most; after all, other companies and individuals will likely be searching for the same items.

Another challenge many businesses face is communication, or lack thereof. An emergency plan won’t be effective if employees are unfamiliar with it or unaware that it exists. To address this issue, training is key. According to Risk, it can be difficult to get employees to take fire drills and other preparedness steps seriously unless they’ve had personal experience with an emergency. To overcome this barrier, frequent communication and regular training are essential steps employers must take to ensure that workers know what to do and how to stay safe should an emergency occur.

Small businesses in particular often struggle with emergency planning, with less than half reporting that they are prepared for severe emergencies. In many cases, the perceived challenge relates to initial cost, but Risk emphasizes that basic emergency preparedness doesn’t have to be expensive. Supplies such as drinking water can be purchased in bulk for reasonable prices, and it doesn’t cost anything but time to write a plan and communicate it. Furthermore, important emergency supplies—water, food, first aid kits, batteries, etc.—are applicable to many different types of emergencies, limiting the need to spend money on preparing for every type of foreseeable event.

Pandemics, according to Risk, are the newest emerging trend in emergency planning. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he says. Pandemics pose different challenges than other types of emergencies due to their scope and longevity. While preparing for a weather emergency typically involves obtaining supplies for a few days and planning for recovery, a pandemic could alter business operations for months or even years. Employers have to decide how to handle considerations ranging from telecommuting procedures to sanitation to contact with customers, striking a balance between caution aimed at protecting workers and the desire to remain profitable. But despite their uniquely complicated challenges, Risk believes that as awareness of potential pandemics increases, preparedness for them will increasingly become the norm.

According to Staples, which sells a variety of preparedness supplies, the three top safety concerns for employees are:

Slips, trips, and falls (STF). One in five employers reports slipping, tripping, or falling at work as its biggest concern. STF injuries are a leading cause of workers’ compensation claims, costing an average of $20,000 per accident.

Natural disasters and storms. According to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, about 25 percent of businesses do not reopen after a natural disaster. Staples found that employees of small businesses feel more vulnerable regarding emergencies and disasters than employees at larger businesses.

Fire. Three-fourths of employees surveyed feel that their workplaces are well prepared for a fire emergency.

Is your emergency action plan ready to go?

It’s the document we hope we never use. A detailed emergency action plan is an essential preparedness tool and in many ways drives the rest of your activity. Consider these tips to make sure your plan is as accessible and effective as possible.

  • Do not store your action plan in electronic form only; make sure hard copies are readily available.
  • List the location of important utility shutoffs, and include digital photos so they can be located quickly and easily.
  • List any equipment or machinery that must be shut down in an emergency and the name of those responsible for doing so.
  • Have each department review all pertinent parts of the plan to ensure accuracy and workability. Often, if one person is charged with writing the plan, he or she will write something that looks good on paper but may not work well when the time comes.
  • Conduct periodic drills to gauge whether employees know what to do in an emergency.
  • Be sure to include provisions in your plan for visitors to your facility.
  • Since emergencies don’t always happen on Tuesdays at 10 a.m., when writing your plan, be sure to take into account variations in emergency procedures for differences in shifts or days of the week.
  • List locations of special equipment (for example, special protective suits to be used in the event of a chemical release) and emergency supplies (food, water, etc.) in the event employees are stranded at your site.
It’s National Hurricane Preparedness Week. Do you have a plan? Is your emergency action plan workable?
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