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How to Run a Safer Business: An Interview with Staples’ Bob Risk

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

Every month should be National Safety Month as far as Bob Risk is concerned. The aptly named expert is Staples’ national sales manager for safety. Before that, he owned a small business for 17 years, so he knows a thing or two about preparedness and all the reasons entrepreneurs have for overlooking it.

We sat down with Bob to get his insights and advice on running a safer business.

What's the biggest mistake small business owners make when it comes to running a safe enterprise?

The biggest mistake they make is ignoring the problem or the possibility of a problem. When you’re a small business owner, your personality type is confident and enthusiastic. You always look forward as if everything’s going to continue to go positively. Plus, there’s so much to do, so many things to take care of, the last thing you think of is “what if?” And even when you do think about the possibilities, it’s usually: “What if I lose this customer? What if I lose this sale?” Because that’s the kind of stuff you can put your arms around. But when it comes to bigger possibilities — what if there’s an earthquake or what if someone gets hurt on the job — it just doesn’t seem in the realm of possibility.

And that’s a huge problem. There’s data that shows that between 40 percent and 60 percent of businesses that have to close because of a natural or man-made disaster never reopen. And 90 percent fail if they don’t resume operation within five days of closing. From a safety perspective, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that private employers reported nearly 3 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2012 — mostly in service-providing industries.

Many small business owners are right there on the edge, working hard to build their cushion, and then the unexpected happens and wipes them out. So this isn’t a trivial consideration for business owners.

How can small business owners avoid ignoring preparation?

A business owner has to deliberately schedule some time to think of the possibilities that could affect their business. That includes walking through the business looking for hazards that they can control, but also thinking about events that they have no control over.

That’s a challenge when you’re constantly on the go with so many other things to worry about. You’re surely going to give thought to the next business presentation but not nearly as likely to give thought to that stream next to your building and what will happen if it goes over its banks and threatens to flood your building. Obviously, you don’t need to worry about blizzards in Alabama or hurricanes in Ohio. But you have to look at plausible events and develop a plan for how to deal with them.

Insurance agents can help identify known risks and threats in your local area. Where can small business owners get some help creating that plan?

You can go to people like OSHA, the Small Business Administration, the National Safety Council, FEMA — even the IRS. They all have Web sites that are very beneficial. Their online tools, downloads and representatives run you through various scenarios for protecting and recovering your personnel and financial records, equipment, inventory, etc. At the very least, do your research and get all the contact information you need for the organizations that can help you, like your insurance agent, your attorney, the Red Cross and your Internet provider, etc. Then put that in a safe place — in your phone and a hard copy somewhere safe. That’s just one less thing to do when something bad happens.

Once the plan is created, then what?

That plan’s not going to do you any good gathering dust on a shelf, or if you don’t have the safety supplies you need to affect the problem and support your plan. Having a plan does nothing if it calls for a defibrillator or emergency water and you don’t have it. Or if your plan calls for covering computer monitors with trash bags and taping them up and you don’t have the trash bags and tape. If you don’t have those products in hand before you need them, well, it’s just too late. You want to stock up well ahead of the event.

And that’s where we can help. Staples provides small business owners with best practices and the products to support them. We sell many types of standard emergency kits and can provide your business with the products needed to create your own solution.

Every business is different and every owner has a different take on what is needed and what to do in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or emergency. The first question to ask yourself is: What do you want to accomplish with regard to preparedness and response? Actually, what do you want your people to be able to accomplish with the plan that’s been developed and safety products you’ve stockpiled? Some businesses want the ability to manage through those first few hours in the immediate aftermath; others want to stock for a day or longer. Some even want to be outfitted with products their employees may need if their homes are affected — things like diapers, tarps, plywood, hammers, nails — all the products that are in great demand when everyone’s affected.

That’s not just nice of them, it’s smart. It shows the company has compassion for employees. So many companies realize their greatest asset is their employees.

So safety and preparedness can be a competitive advantage?

Yes.

Speaking of employees, who should own safety and preparedness?

Well, it depends. The smaller the business, the higher up the responsibility usually lies. So if you’re a truly small business, it’s probably going to be the owner. But I’ve seen it be everyone from the CEO to the receptionist or the maintenance person. It doesn’t really matter what the person’s title is, but it needs to be the responsibility of someone who’s going to stay on top of it. “Preparedness” can’t just be an idea that’s floating around. You have to determine exactly whose responsibility it is and what that includes. Safety has to be part of an overall corporate culture that everyone understands and participates in.

Once the plan is in place, you should conduct drills to rehearse the plan and test the products and inventory to determine you have what you need. A good example is first aid kits. We’ve got some models that make it really simple to know when you’ve used the last of something. They’ve got spring-loaded boxes with tags that pop up when it’s time to re-order. In most cases, we can have the item delivered to you the next day.

If you could only give a small business owner one tip for operating more safely, what would it be and why?

That’s easy: It’s far easier to prepare for an emergency than it is to have to explain why you didn’t.

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