From Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to the polar vortex, you'd think small-business owners would have learned their lesson about the importance of preparing for extreme weather events by now. But in a Staples survey conducted last month, 75 percent of small-business workers say natural disasters have not caused their employers to reassess safety plans—even though almost half say their companies temporarily closed due to weather in the past six months.
What's worse, employees at businesses with fewer than 50 employees say they don’t feel safe in an emergency. And it's no wonder: Compared to workers at larger companies, small-business employees are less sure who's in charge of emergency planning at work, have less emergency equipment or plans in place, and are less likely to review safety procedures or participate in drills.
So what’s in store weather-wise for your business this summer? It’s not good. Flash floods, extreme heat, worsening drought and severe storms may all be part of the package depending on where you live, Accuweather reports. If you haven't already, it's time to put a real emergency plan in place. You can start by following these eight steps:
Step 1: Identify Risks
Consider the types of natural disasters your region is susceptible to. For example, where I live in Southern California, that would be earthquakes. Use the weather forecast to spot potential problems. For me this year, that’s drought (leading to wildfires and water shortages), but in the past, Southern California has suffered flash floods brought on by El Nino and even tsunami warnings.
Step 2: Identify Critical Functions
What functions are essential to keep your business operational? For instance, for a restaurant, being able to safely prepare food and serve it are critical functions. Communicating with customers, accepting and making payments, and fulfilling orders are all essential functions of most businesses; marketing or following up on leads are not.
Step 3: Determine a Disaster’s Effect
Next, consider how the extreme weather risks on your list would affect 1) the critical functions of your business and 2) your business as a whole. For instance, if your restaurant couldn’t serve food, it would cause you to lose sales, hurting your cash flow. Long term, it could lead to lost customers if your competitors are all open for business while you’re not.
Step 4: Think Big
When creating your emergency plan, don’t just focus on your region but on areas where key customers, suppliers and vendors are located. Have backup plans—for instance, if all your key suppliers are in an area projected to be hit by flooding, start lining up alternate suppliers in other regions.
Step 5: Protect Your People
Develop an emergency evacuation plan to get your employees out of the building safely; stock up on safety tools such as flashlights, batteries, crank radios, water, food and first aid supplies. Practice your plan with employees—at least once a year, review the plan, do the drill and check the supplies. It’s crucial that workers know who's in charge in an emergency, so develop an “emergency org chart” showing who will lead if you aren’t there, if that person isn’t there and so on down the line.
Step 6: Protect Your Data
If you’re not already using cloud storage solutions for your business, start investigating them. Make sure any cloud storage provider you choose offers the kind of security you need. At minimum, financial and accounting data, corporate documents, customer contracts, orders and inventory, and HR records should all be digitized so you can access them in the cloud.
Step 7: Keep in Touch
You don’t want employees driving to work through a wildfire zone or customers unknowingly heading into a flood for a meeting at your office. Compile a list of employee, customer and supplier contact information (home phones, work phones, cell phones, email addresses), and keep it online and updated monthly. Severe weather often knocks out or overloads phone lines or email servers, so it’s crucial you have multiple ways to contact staff, customers and suppliers. Develop a “phone tree” for your employees so you can minimize the use of phone lines.
Step 8: Keep It Going
Figure out where employees can work if severe weather keeps them away from your location. Can employees work at home, or can you rent co-working space or sublet from another business? If you don’t already have protocol in place for remote work, make sure employees have the equipment, software and network access they need. Provide online access to both your disaster plan and your employee, supplier and customer contact information, but also give out copies on a USB drive or on paper because your team may not be able to get online when severe weather hits.
Get assistance creating your extreme weather plan from:
- Your insurance agent. He or she can identify risks and make sure you’re covered, as well as help you file claims after the event has occurred.
- The SBA. See a list of resources here.
- The IRS. You can get information about data backup and what records to digitize from this government agency.
- Ready.gov. This government website offers help for individual and business emergency planning.
- Staples. The company offers a safety quiz you can take to assess your preparedness.
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