Create a Preparedness Plan for Your Small Business in 5 Steps

With everything else you have on your plate, the last thing you (or any of us, really) want to think about is natural disasters, medical emergencies and other crises. But the fact is, calamities like these can hit any business at any time:

  • In 2014, property damage from fires in stores and offices totaled $708 million, up 15 percent from 2013. (National Fire Prevention Association)
  • An average of 909 tornadoes occurred annually in the U.S. between 2012 and 2015. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
  • Fatal work injuries from explosions increased 25 percent in 2014. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

A significant emergency or disaster is especially devastating for unprepared businesses. Lack of planning causes critical loss of response time from poorly executed and untested procedures. A catastrophe is made even worse when staff is untrained or lack adequate emergency supplies to properly react.

The impact is huge. According to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, roughly one-fourth of businesses do not reopen after a major disaster.

 

Anatomy of a Preparedness Plan 

Surviving and recovering from emergencies requires a dedicated, viable and practiced response from the entire company. And that requires a written disaster preparedness plan, which includes:

  1. Specific procedures for responding to various emergency situations
  2. Tested methods for recovering and maintaining business continuity
  3. Scheduled inventorying and replacement of adequate resources and supplies for crisis events
  4. Regular employee training

Creating this vital plan isn’t difficult. Review these steps and then draft a plan to prepare your business for what you hope will never happen.

 

Step 1: Assess the Hazards

Begin your disaster plan by listing potential weather and other types of emergencies. Then evaluate the effects on human life, property and continuity of operations. It’s important to give careful consideration to how each of these emergencies can impact your business:

To adequately protect workers and property, realistically examine the potential for these emergencies. For example, even if you have hazardous chemicals on your site, you could be affected by a spill at a neighboring business. And we all know that severe weather strikes all over the country.

You can come up with a good list on your own, but it also makes sense to get some expert input. Insurance agents, the police and fire departments, local emergency planning authorities and even industrial trade organizations are invaluable sources of information. And many of them provide assessments free of charge. Getting multiple opinions from experts helps you lock down a plan for likely or reasonable events, and better prepares you even for unexpected ones.

 

Step 2: Develop Procedures

Create step-by-step instructions for three types of tasks:

1. Evacuation and Shelter-in-Place Procedures. Once you’ve identified and detailed possible emergency situations, outline appropriate response mechanisms and procedures. Since the vast majority of all workplace emergencies require evacuation or sheltering in place, start with effective and practical procedures for both situations by:

  • Creating evacuation routes that are accessible and free of other hazards, such as flammable or combustible products
  • Determining an outside assembly point where employees gather after evacuation
  • Establishing a shelter area within the facility for severe weather response
  • Assigning workers to assist individuals with disabilities, medical conditions or injuries during an emergency
  • Instituting methods to communicate with employees, such as an alarm system

There may be specific requirements for evacuation routes, as established by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and local or state fire codes. Ask your local fire authorities to review your plan prior to implementation so your routes meet federal and local requirements. Learn more about OSHA requirements for small business.

2. Communication Procedures. In addition to alarm and announcement systems on site, you need a process for reaching employees who are away from the office. Many companies also have hazardous weather procedures in place so employees know what to do in the event of common events like snowstorms or power outages. 

3. Other Procedures. You also should establish a process for shutting down and securing the workplace, including powering down computer and other equipment, setting alarms, locking doors and securing cash registers and safes.

 

Step 3: Outline Recovery and Continuity

Response is crucial, but so is recovery. Communications, transportation and supplies are often severely disrupted following a large-scale or serious situation. Here’s what to include in the recovery and continuity section of your disaster plan:

1. Key Tasks and Documents. Evaluate your enterprise’s essential functions and determine tasks that can be performed by employees at home or via telecommuting. Backing up computer data to secure cloud-based network systems can be lifesaving to operations and overall longevity. Keep copies of important business documents in a fire safe and in an off-site “go-kit” in case of emergency evacuation.

2. Alternate Deployment. Create plans for reaching out to employees with instructions, enabling them to operate off-site when conditions warrant. Some companies use mass voice or email technologies for this. Others set up private web pages. Either way, these systems should be set up and tested prior to needing them. Regularly update personal contact information and next-of-kin data so your records are current. If there’s time, ship orders early or move inventory, trucks and employees to an unaffected area where deliveries can originate.

3.  Stakeholder Communication. Centralize client/customer contact information and be sure it’s accessible from other locations so you can alert and update them on their orders and any potential delays or disruptions. Enable remote access to vendor and supplier contact information so you can fill them in on the situation even if you have to be off-site for an extended time.

 

Step 4: Gather Resources

The first resource you need to have on hand is your actual plan. Once it’s completed and reviewed by your property and business insurer and the local fire or emergency response department, create hard copies and online versions accessible to all employees on-site and off. Share the continuity section of your disaster preparedness plan with critical suppliers and vendors, and ask them to share their post-disaster procedures with you. 

Next, stock up on equipment and supplies necessary to prepare for, respond to and recover from the event. At the minimum, you should have:

Besides these basics, consider additional resources, such as:

  • Automated External Defibrillators (AED). While CPR is a vital process in emergency medical care, AEDs may offer a greater benefit to the victim’s overall survival rate. In the event of certain medical emergencies, such as sudden cardiac arrest, an AED can be used to check the heart rhythm and, if necessary, send an electric shock to the heart to restore normal rhythm. Many models come with verbal instructions, lights or text messages for using the device. Although the AED has become a device that even an untrained person can readily activate, it’s still important to train workplace responders on the proper use. Your local rescue squad, medical center and the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association offer CPR and AED training free or at a low cost.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). If your facility has the potential for hazardous chemical spills or releases, make certain you comply with applicable OSHA standards, especially when it comes to chemical response and PPE. Stock up on spill kits, respirators, or chemically resistant gloves and goggles. Simple paper-like fiber, disposable suits to protect against dust and splashes or more advanced protection offered by neoprene or similar materials may be required.

 

Step 5: Train the Team

Ideally, all staff should be instructed on emergency procedures — at the time of hire, whenever the plan changes, and at regular intervals — to ensure everyone knows the drill. If there’s equipment that that must be shut down during disasters, create practice opportunities for the workers assigned with this responsibility, too. In some states or regions, the frequency or type of drills may be mandatory, so check with local authorities.

The American Red Cross recommends training 10 percent to 15 percent of the workforce in first aid and CPR. At minimum, you should have enough workers trained on every shift and department to attend to medical emergencies on the job within a few minutes. The sessions should include the proper use of fire extinguishers and other emergency supplies. Training may also be mandatory for certain types of response, such as emergencies related to chemical hazards, so consult OSHA regulations for any necessary criteria in these areas.

Preparing for the worst may seem like a nice-to-have until a negative event hits your business.

By carefully creating a disaster preparedness plan, gathering supplies and training workers, you prevent some hazardous situations from worsening and improve your company’s chances of recovering. And that’s good business.

This article provides general information and is not intended to replace professional and personalized safety, legal or insurance advice. Consult with your own advisors and review local/state/federal regulatory guidelines and requirements when creating or updating your plan.

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