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Being Prepared When Disaster Strikes

Too many organizations fail to keep their crisis-response plans up-to-date or train employees on how to prepare -- and respond -- when an emergency occurs. With so many disasters occurring this year, HR leaders in non-affected areas have had fair warning to step up their game.

Monday, May 23, 2011
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Suddenly the highway outside the window at work begins to flap like a towel drying in the wind, pictures begin toppling forward to the floor, and the once-stable office has been transformed into a sandcastle at high tide -- are you prepared?

The recent wave of natural disasters, from severe flooding and tornadoes in the United States to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, have highlighted the necessity for disaster preparedness in the workplace and how important it is for human resource professionals to be ready to handle such an event if it arises.

Too many businesses wait until crisis strikes to act. But proper preparedness and planning is vital to maintaining employee safety, minimizing damage and losses, and ensuring the show will go on.

The Vulnerability Audit

Before creating a response plan, first take a vulnerability audit or risk assessment. Remember, the workplace can be directly affected through actual physical damage in the event of an earthquake, tornado, tsunami or other natural disaster, and can also be adversely affected by employees having family members or friends impacted by a traumatic event.

Also take a look at the potential for smaller-scale crises including gas leaks, fires, robberies, violence, power outages, IT breakdowns and any kind of other major disruption to business.

Start by asking the basic questions. Does the company have a plan in place in case of disaster? If so, when was the last time it was reviewed, practiced or revisited for employees? Does it include a business-contingency plan? Are employees trained and aware of what to do in the event of a crisis? What is the insurance coverage?

These are just some of the many questions to ask when assessing disaster preparedness and planning for recovery.

Due to the unpredictability of workplace crises, knowing the potential risks is vital in executing a precise, effective response plan. A disaster-ready business will recover faster, minimize financial losses and enable employees to return to work as quickly as possible.

Creating a Plan

An effective plan is one that is well-rounded and capable of responding to any incident, regardless of size, scope or complexity. Make sure the plan addresses up-to-date evacuation procedures, property-damage protection, systems back-up, communication and business contingency.

HR professionals should also consider consulting with first responders and employee-program-assistance providers to ensure the plan effectively covers major areas of concern.

When preparing for an immediate threat such as a natural disaster, safety comes first.

Identify appropriate safe zones in the office and surrounding area, and use a combination of postings, trainings and annual drills to make sure employees know where to go and how to exit in the event of an emergency. Having proper safe zones, effective procedures, and necessary equipment and supplies will help reduce chaos, enhance safety and restore order.

Disaster Training and Communication

The next major step in disaster preparedness is adequate training and communication to ensure the workforce has all the tools necessary to respond and recover in times of crisis.

HR professionals should start by having a meeting focused on disaster preparedness where all of the important information can be disseminated to the entire workforce. At these meetings, topics such as where the emergency supplies are located, where the office safe area can be found and how to respond to each kind of respective emergency can be covered.

It is also a good idea to have first responders and EAP professionals attend these meetings to help build understanding, awareness, and share ideas and best practices. EAP professionals can provide critical insight in developing a thorough response plan, actively participate in safety drills, and train managers on how to lead in times of crisis.

The most important idea to convey during crisis response discussions is "always stay calm." No matter what the situational burden, HR leaders can better ensure employee safety by staying calm.

Panic and excessive fear only increase the severity and difficulty of the situation. If an employee begins to panic, it's important to offer reassurance and keep conversations in an optimistic tone as to not escalate the fear factor.

Preparedness in Action

In Florida, companies are often threatened by hurricanes and have learned first-hand how preparedness works.

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Ruth's Chris Steak House learned the communication plan was one of the most important pieces of its disaster planning when Hurricane Katrina struck. Without phone lines, the management team was able to locate all but three of 370 employees in affected areas within a few days using text messaging.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the company's disaster plan also includes pre-hurricane-season tree-trimming around restaurants, an outline of items for each store's disaster-supply kit and step-by-step instructions on ways to secure the building and food supplies before evacuations.

Turning to Professional Resources

A major part of disaster preparedness is knowing where to turn for resources and support. One of those crisis-response resources is the employer's employee-assistance program.

When the tragic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, there were a variety of U.S.-based companies with employees and family members in Japan who needed to be evacuated immediately. Some of ACI Specialty Benefits' clients turned to the EAP resources for prompt support in ensuring these employees and family members were taken care of.

ACI's EAP and work/life specialists worked diligently to provide comprehensive emergency resource referrals for housing, childcare, clothing, communication and transportation, across multiple U.S. locations.

In critical situations, EAP services can be invaluable in providing prompt and professional support to address a wide range of business and personal needs, including providing on-site counseling support to management and staff. 

That can help mitigate post-traumatic-stress symptoms for all employees, and help provide a sense of closure so that the workplace can move forward positively. Counselors can also help with housing placement and provide other vital resources to support employers in the event of a disaster.

Avoiding disaster is often not a choice, but with the proper preparation and communication you can be confident your business is ready for when it strikes.

Ann D. Clark is CEO and founder of ACI Specialty Benefits, a top 10 EAP and leading provider of student-assistance programs, wellness, concierge and work/life services. A best-selling author, Clark is one of the original certified employee assistance professionals and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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