As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the East Coast this week, this is an appropriate time for firms and companies to evaluate their emergency preparedness plan, and update it as appropriate, or create one if you do not have one.
Certain employers are required by law to have an emergency response plan in place. Even if your business in not one for which a plan is required, it is a good idea to have a plan in place.
As FEMA reports, up to 40% of businesses affected by a natural or human-caused disaster never reopen. FEMA further advises that a survey conducted by Ad Council indicated that nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents said they do not have an emergency plan in place for their business. Both of these figures are stern warnings that it is time to make sure that you have an up to date plan in effect.
Every business must evaluate what type of plan makes the most sense for them, based on the most likely natural disasters that would affect their business, universal risks, the type of business your company engages in, and if there are any physical hazards present on site.
According to OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), your emergency plan should include:
1. A preferred method for reporting fires and other emergencies;
2. An evacuation policy and procedure;
3. Emergency escape procedures and route assignments, such as floor plans, workplace maps, and safe or refuge areas;
4. Names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of individuals both within and outside your company to contact for additional information or explanation of duties and responsibilities under the emergency plan;
5. Procedures for employees who remain to perform or shut down critical plant operations, operate fire extinguishers, or perform other essential services that cannot be shut down for every emergency alarm before evacuating;
6. Rescue and medical duties for any workers designated to perform them;
7. Designated assembly location and procedures to account for all employees after an evacuation; and
8. A way to alert employees including disabled workers, to evacuate or take other action.
Additionally, OSHA advises that although not required, it is advisable to have a site of an alternative communications center, a secure on- or offsite location to store originals or duplicate copies of accounting records, legal documents, your employees' emergency contact lists, and other essential records, and an updated list of key personnel in order of priority, to notify in the event of an emergency during off-duty hours.
FEMA offers a sample Emergency Response Plan that can be downloaded and filled in, or used as a template in developing your own plan.
If your business uses or stores hazardous materials, you will need to incorporate provisions in your emergency plan dealing with care of these materials. Specific guidelines addressing emergencies involving hazardous materials are found in 29 CFR Part 1910.120(q). Even if your business does not use or store hazardous materials, there is still the risk of being exposed to toxic materials that come from an external source, so it would be wise to review requirements and include them in your emergency response plan.
Specific OSHA regulations related to various aspects of emergency preparedness can be found in their publication Principal Emergency Response and Preparedness Requirements and Guidance.
Training your employees is of course, essential. You can have a wonderfully written plan, but if no one knows what is in the plan, how to implement the plan, or even where the plan is kept, it will be useless. OSHA recommends holding practice drills frequently so that employees and management remain prepared.
In addition to an emergency response plan, FEMA recommends other items that should be reviewed as part of your overall planning:
Crisis Communication Plan
Have a plan for how to communicate with off-site employees, customers, authorities at the local, state, and national level, and others as appropriate. Some organizations have a text message plan in place in the event of a disaster which may be the most time efficient method of contacting large groups of people.
In analyzing what risks may face your business, it is important to review your insurance coverage, making sure that your policy adequately covers your potential losses and that the deductibles on your plan are appropriate. Understand the requirements under the policy for making claims if a loss occurs.
Back Up Files
Losing all of your files in a fire or other disaster could prove devastating to your business. Maintaining back-up copies of electronic and paper files is essential. This may mean scanning in all documents if you maintain a lot of paper files. Importantly, back up should be maintained off-site. Cloud storage is becoming more and more commonplace and this could prove essential for the preservation of your business.
In the event of a disaster, business may be interrupted, and this could have an effect on a variety of areas: utility disruption, operations, and information technology recovery, to name a few.
DRI International, a non-profit, has a suggested step-by-step approach for developing a business continuity plan.
FEMA recommends keeping the following items on hand: water for each person for 3 days, non-perishable food for each person for 3 days, battery powered radio, flashlight and extra batteries, first aid kit, dust mask, whistle, plastic sheeting and duct tape for shelter in place, moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties, wrench or pliers for turning off utilities, can opener and local maps.
Taking the time to plan ahead and plan for emergencies may not only be a legal requirement (depending on the size of your company), but may also prove invaluable to the health and safety of your employees and the future of your business.
Anne O'Donnell is a recovering litigator who is now currently a Senior Writer for legal professional content at Findlaw.com. She practiced for 10 years in civil litigation in San Francisco.