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When the unexpected strikes: Readying the workplace for emergencies

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: Jul 18, 2018


Emergencies on the job are always a possibility, especially with another hurricane season underway for the Atlantic and Gulf states, and wildfires burning in California, Colorado, Idaho, and elsewhere. To make sure you’re ready for anything, it’s worth reviewing some best practices for workplace disaster preparedness.

The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) provides a great place to start with their brochure, Every Business Should Have a Plan, which rounds up each component of a smart plan, with links to reliable source for exploring topics in-depth. Here’s a selection of FEMA’s advice:

  • Continuity planning: Determine “which staff, materials, procedures, and equipment are absolutely necessary to keep the business operating,” including key suppliers, and establish succession procedures. It’s also critical to plan what you’ll do if your building or other work site is inaccessible.

  • Employee communication: Make sure you have two-way communication channels established, as well as an out-of-town number where employees can leave an “I’m okay” message in case of a catastrophe.

  • Emergency supplies: Encourage all employees to have a portable emergency supply kit on-hand covering the basics – “fresh water, food, clean air, and warmth” – as well as a battery-powered radio, flashlight, first aid kit, whistle, plastic sheeting, and duct tape. (The American Red Cross provides this helpful supply checklist.)

  • Evacuation planning: You need procedures in place for leaving each worksite safely, and you need to practice them. Share space with another organization? Coordinate and practice with them “to avoid confusion and potential gridlock.”

  • Shelter-in-place planning: In some circumstances, such as a tornado or chemical incident, it’s best to stay where you are. Understand and plan for all the possibilities that might keep you immobile.

  • Cyber-security improvements: Back up your data regularly, be sure to use anti-virus software and keep it up-to-date, and install firewalls to protect from online intruders.

Texas-based emergency prep consultants Technical Response Planning provide a useful summary of the planning steps recommended on the Dept. of Homeland Security’s site. Here are a few worth noting:

  • Perform a risk assessment and review every hazard or threat scenario indicated.

  • Identify response resources on-hand, including the people, systems, and equipment within your facility that can help stabilize an emergency situation. Next, look to external sources to fill in the gaps.

  • Coordinate with public emergency services such as fire, police, HAZMAT teams, and emergency medical services to share knowledge of your facility and its hazards, understand their capabilities to stabilize an emergency, and determine their response time to your facility.

  • Train your people so that everyone on-site knows what to do in an emergency or disruption of business operations. Among other topics, training should include response plan familiarization, individual roles and responsibilities, review training (whenever a substantial change or revision is made to the plan), and refresher courses, as necessary.

  • Perform response drills and exercises, including fire and other evacuation drills. These should be designed to test response plan components and participants’ knowledge of expectations, and required duties, when deploying response strategies and restoring operations.

For a deeper dive into preparedness strategies, check resources from these trustworthy sources:

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides answers for common preparedness questions in this workplace emergency planning guide.

  • offers a number of scenario-specific toolkits for workplace preparedness ready to download, covering emergencies like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, power outages, severe wind, and tornadoes. They’ve also got a social media toolkit, a how-to guide for offering your own preparedness workshops, and a range of video tutorials.

  • FEMA’s Comprehensive Preparedness Guides are available in beginner, intermediate, and expert editions, as well as for specific kinds of workplaces like schools and houses of worship. You can also print out FEMA’s one-page worksheet to track your planning process.

  • The American Red Cross also offers emergency preparedness training for businesses through their Red Cross Ready Rating program.

Marc Schultz is communications editor at Work for Good.