We rarely think about emergencies before they arrive on our doorstep. Yet, the recent civil unrest in Baltimore has presented another eye-opening reminder that no one can predict how or when an emergency might strike. While it might come as a fire or a flood – rather than a riot – it’s clear that when an unexpected crisis arises, it may take a toll on business. But don’t panic. Remain calm. There is one helpful thing that every employer can do; have a plan. Few people can think clearly and logically during a crisis, so it is important to prepare thoroughly in advance. While no amount of preparation can eliminate all the risks, careful and meticulous planning will undoubtedly limit the costs of inevitable emergencies, save money in the long run and help get the business back to prospering.
Identify and Assess Vulnerabilities
The most essential step in preparing for an emergency is to identify the business’s possible vulnerabilities. To identify these risks, an employer may want to ask questions like: (a) What types of emergencies have occurred in the past? (b) What disasters could happen as a result of the workplace’s location? (c) What dangers could result from technological failure? (d) What emergencies could be caused by human error? It is equally important to identify both risks that are internal, like storing hazardous chemicals onsite, and risks that are external, such as possible floods or fires. In an ideal world, each identified vulnerability would be completely mitigated. However, the realities of business present an obvious barrier. It simply is not prudent or practical to spend money minimizing unlikely risks that present limited harm. So, once the array of vulnerabilities have been identified, the next step is to assess the probability and potential impact of each. Assessing the vulnerabilities will allow the employer to prioritize its time and funds.
Mitigate the Risks Where Possible
Where possible, the employer should immediately take steps to mitigate the identified vulnerabilities. These efforts may include: (a) making repairs; (b) updating equipment; (c) arranging for first aid or other training for employees; and (d) reviewing insurance coverage for deficiencies or gaps.
Develop the Emergency Action Plan (EAP)
In many cases, a risk cannot be wholly mitigated. For example, try as it might, an employer cannot ultimately protect against a fire. For these types of risks, the employer should develop an EAP to address them. As a base, an EAP should address: (a) Emergency Response Procedures. How should your workplace respond to the emergency? When will an evacuation be necessary? What are the procedures for employees who have to shut down critical operations before an evacuation? (b) Crisis Communications Procedures. Who needs to be communicated with during a crisis? What about remote employees, customers or suppliers? Who will be the business’s primary point of communication? (c) Business Continuity Procedures. How will the business continue or resume once the emergency has passed? What are the priorities for recovery? What if the emergency is lengthy?
Implementing the EAP
Once the EAP is developed, the business must take steps to implement it. However, implementing the EAP involves more than just putting it into action when an emergency arises. Beyond attaining necessary equipment and supplies, the most fundamental part of implementing an EAP is teaching it to employees. Simply put, when it comes down to it, an EAP will only be as effective as the employees’ understanding and preparedness. As such, the EAP should be reviewed carefully and in detail with each employee. Specifically, employees should be trained on:
- their personal roles and responsibilities;
- information about identified threats and hazards;
- communications protocols and procedures;
- emergency response procedures;
- evacuation and accountability procedures;
- the location and use of common emergency equipment; and
- any emergency shutdown procedures.
Importantly, while the significance of the initial training should not be undermined, training must be continuously reinforced or it will be forgotten. Moreover, the EAP should be kept or posted somewhere that employees will have access to it.
Revise and Update the EAP
Finally, like any plan, an EAP should be reviewed regularly. While it’s recommended that an EAP is reviewed at least once a year, it should also be revised after any drill or emergency as well as whenever there are changes in the organization that could compromise its effectiveness, such as changes to the workplace. An outdated plan will be of little use in an emergency and could actually end up being a liability.