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Emergency Management Jan 12, 2021

6 Winter Storm Preparations Every Business Should Make

Safeguarding your people and business from winter threats starts with understanding the risks and having a plan.

Winter may conjure up imagery suitable for a Norman Rockwell painting: sitting by the fire with a hot drink in hand, watching through the window as snowflakes drift lazily through the air. But the business impact of winter weather is anything but idyllic.

AccuWeather estimates the total U.S. damage and economic loss due to winter storms in 2019 was a staggering $8 billion. From lost wages of hourly workers to property damage to lost tax revenue, winter weather can cause a devastating economic ripple effect. And small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the impact of extreme weather: An estimated 25 percent of small businesses don’t reopen after a disaster, according to the Institute for Business and Home Safety.

But it’s not just companies in the path of those epic nor’easters that need to consider winter storm preparations. The Arctic blast that swept across the nation in November 2019 affected more than 200 million Americans as far as the state of Texas. While the characteristics of winter weather vary with location, every business faces changing threats as winter approaches. Snow, rain, plummeting temperatures, COVID-19, and increased fire dangers are just a few of the threats that may impact your people and business this winter.

Whether your organization is a small business or large-scale enterprise, winter weather preparedness is key to mitigating potential disruptions. By preparing for the many hazards of winter weather, you can minimize the impact of such incidents on your employees, customers, and bottom line.

From physical winter storm preparations to ensuring employees have access to all the information they need during a winter event, here are six steps you can take to protect your business all season long.

Step 1: Assess Your Risks

There are several hazards businesses need to watch out for when it comes to cold weather. It’s not just icy roads and snow accumulation. An increased likelihood of structural stress and damage, dangerous fire activity, and slip and fall injuries are just a few of the risks that businesses face when winter arrives.

The first step to preparing your business for winter is to assess your organization’s unique risks. Where your employees live, where your offices are located, what industry you operate in—even how your employees work—will all affect which threats pose the greatest danger to your people and your business.

Winter weather threats

Here are just a few potential winter hazards to consider as you evaluate your specific risks:

  • COVID-19
  • Flu and other seasonal illnesses
  • Unsafe driving conditions
  • Road closures
  • Slip and fall injuries
  • Hypothermia and frostbite
  • Flight delays and cancellations
  • Local school delays and closures
  • Structural stress and damage
  • Fire activity
  • Power outages (both in the workplace and for employees working remotely)

A winter storm warning is typically issued 12-36 hours before a winter event is expected to start, so vigilantly checking local news and following travel safety recommendations can help you stay on top of regional threats. But the reality is, that’s only half the battle.

What about traveling or field-based employees? Or offices in other cities? The rise in remote working due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also presents unique safety and preparedness challenges. With an increasingly dispersed workforce, it’s not enough to track winter weather threats in one locale—you need to track the myriad of threats that could impact all of your employees, no matter where they are located.

Winter weather events are hyper-local, and tracking such a wide array of threats manually is simply not feasible. For this reason, many companies rely on a global threat intelligence solution to track winter weather threats automatically. Providing 24/7 situational awareness, a threat intelligence solution allows you to rapidly identify emerging winter threats that could impact your people or facilities, anywhere in the world.

Picture of snow-covered road
Winter Weather Preparation and Response Checklist
Learn how to prepare your organization for the three phases of a winter storm.
GET THE CHECKLIST

Step 2: Determine Who’s Responsible

When a snowstorm hits, who needs to ensure the office parking lot is safe and driveable? Who will track the storm and communicate weather-related updates to employees? The midst of a storm is not the time to figure out who is responsible for these tasks.

Your organization is accountable for your employees’ overall safety and well-being. To fulfill your organization’s duty of care, you must ensure all necessary safety precautions are taken—regardless of whether those precautionary measures are executed by your organization or a third party. As part of your winter storm preparations, review your contracts with vendors, insurance providers, property managers, and landlords. There should be specific callouts for weather-related events. If not, contact the contract owners directly to determine contractual obligations and responsibilities.

Aside from outlining the responsibilities of all external parties, it’s equally important to take a similar approach internally. From keeping employees informed of rapidly developing situations to ensuring all employees are accounted for to keeping facilities and equipment in safe operating condition, preparing your business for winter requires support from a variety of internal functions.

Assemble a project team of involved stakeholders to clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of each function. This team should include departments such as HR, Facilities, Business Continuity, Emergency Operations, and IT. In a small business where functions often overlap, a clear, documented plan of who will do what during a winter event is just as important. Having this will help avoid confusion, finger-pointing, and missteps when it matters most.

Step 3: Make a Plan for Each Threat

Once you’ve identified your risks and determined who is responsible for completing each of the precautionary measures, create a specific action plan for each winter weather hazard you may encounter to eliminate ambiguity and keep everyone on the same page.

Sign up for relevant winter weather advisories and winter storm warnings. Outline clear triggers for when and how you will make important decisions, like when to close the office or tell employees to leave work early. Develop a winter storm preparation checklist. Identify what you will need to do from the moment the storm hits through the recovery period.

And remember that you should not be preparing for winter weather in a vacuum. It’s great to have a plan—but even the best-laid plans fall short if your business leaders and employees aren’t also prepared. At a minimum, you should rehearse various winter weather scenarios with key leaders and people managers, and train employees on winter safety measures.

Step 4: Fortify Your Locations

Winterizing your business requires comprehensive planning and meticulous attention to detail. Don’t wait until a storm is announced to fortify your facilities to withstand winter threats and hazards. As part of your winter storm preparations, be sure to conduct regular inspections and maintenance of your offices, supplies, and equipment. You should check carbon monoxide detectors, elevators to walkways, and evacuation routes. This will allow you to obtain any materials needed to maintain them before the storm is at your doorstep.

Here are a few winter storm preparations and precautions that can be made well in advance of a winter storm warning to protect your facilities:

  • Maintain all roofs and keep current with repairs.
  • Add pipe insulation to protect plumbing and prevent frozen pipes.
  • Test your HVAC and lighting systems.
  • Ensure all smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order.
  • Develop a power outage backup plan.

How businesses can prepare for winter storm power outages

One of the primary concerns during a winter storm is the loss of power. Winter storms often knock out power lines, and power outages and power surges can be disastrous for your people and business. A loss of power can hamper employee productivity, threaten employee safety, and impede vital business operations. And a power surge can lead to a devastating data loss if employees’ work isn’t automatically backed up.

While a power outage can be dangerous, there are a few winter storm preparations you can take to ensure your staff, space, and systems are ready for a power outage.

Before the storm hits, consider taking these preventative measures:

  • Keep a variety of portable chargers and battery banks on hand to charge cell phones.
  • Install emergency lighting throughout the building, including all exit routes.
  • Train employees on how to keep safe during a power outage.
  • Get power surge protectors to protect expensive computer equipment.
  • Invest in a backup generator.
  • Implement a secure data backup solution to prevent data loss.
  • Have a plan for communicating with employees across multiple channels (text, email, phone).

Step 5: Equip Your People

In addition to preparing your facilities for winter, you’ll also need to properly prepare your employees and ensure they have the equipment and resources they need to stay safe.

Share tips for how employees can stay safe this winter, whether working from home or in the office. Review space heater and backup generator safety reminders. Make sure employees that work outdoors have adequate protective clothing and know how to recognize the warning signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Any company vehicles should be serviced before the winter season to ensure the battery, tire tread, windshield wipers, and antifreeze are satisfactory. You’ll also want to be sure employees have access to emergency supplies at home, at work, and while driving.

Keeping people informed

One of the most important aspects of winter weather preparedness is being informed and taking action as soon as it becomes apparent a weather event is going to impact your people. Fortunately, the National Weather Service provides ongoing, real-time information bout weather events as they occur. To understand what to do with this information, businesses should read and follow the three NWS severity distinctions for winter weather events.

  • Winter Weather Advisories are the least severe weather designation and suggest light wintery precipitation is expected which could create slick conditions and impact travel.
  • A Winter Storm Watch is the National Weather Service’s designation for storms anticipated to produce heavier precipitation resulting in snow, sleet, or ice.
  • A Winter Storm Warning is the highest severity designation and means there is a high level of certainty that a storm will produce snow, sleet, or ice.

National Weather Service winter weather advisory levels

Equipped with a modern threat intelligence solution, organizations can further bolster preparedness by leveraging real-time weather data in conjunction with location data and other sources to assess and predict the impact of weather events before they occur.

Stock up on winter safety essentials

When a severe winter storm hits, your people should be prepared to shelter in place for at least 72 hours. This means all employees should have access to an emergency supply kit at home and work with adequate provisions for three days.

Build an office winter weather safety kit and encourage employees to keep their own emergency supplies at home. At a minimum, these kits should include:

  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Battery-powered NOAA weather radio
  • Extra food and water
  • Extra prescription medicine
  • First-aid supplies
  • Emergency heat source (portable generator, fireplace, or space heater properly ventilated)
  • Fire extinguisher

Build a winter emergency kit for your vehicle

Of course, many employees don’t sit at a desk and must travel for work—even during winter driving conditions. In addition to fully inspecting and servicing vehicles before the winter season begins, ensure employees who must drive as part of their job duties carry the following:

  • Blankets
  • Sand or kitty litter
  • Tow rope
  • Flashlight
  • Bottled water
  • Non-perishable snacks
  • Warm clothes (mittens, hats, boots, jackets)
  • Snow shovel and brush
  • Cell phone charger
  • Spare tire
  • Jumper cables
  • First-aid kit
  • Flares

Step 6: Keep Everyone Informed

Having a plan for how—and with whom—you will communicate when winter weather hits is equally important. Have accurate contact information on hand for third parties you may need to contact. Depending on the various action plans you’ve identified, this may include your utility provider, landlord, and insurance company. Identify how you will disseminate storm-related information and maintain contact with employees during winter weather events. It’s also important to consider how you will keep customers and suppliers informed of impacts to your business. They also need to know about things like office closures or delayed openings.

To communicate effectively, use technology to your advantage. Email alone isn’t going to cut it and phone trees are prone to human error and long delays. If you rely solely on these methods to communicate with employees and a bad snowstorm causes a widespread service outage in your area—as is often the case—many employees may never get the message.

An emergency communication system—with features such as multi-channel delivery, two-way messaging, pre-built communication templates, and easily updatable event pages—can help you ensure all employees receive the information they need, when they need it. Organizations can quickly and reliably disseminate information to employees about storm-related outages, closures, and safety information. And it’s not just large corporations that can benefit—even a small business can significantly improve productivity and operational efficiencies by streamlining winter weather communication.

Rockland Trust Company—a full-service commercial bank with over 100 retail branches throughout New England—implemented AlertMedia’s mass communication software to ensure employee safety and minimize the business impact of winter-related events. During one major winter storm, many of Rockland Trust’s retail branches had no power or internet connectivity, and employee residential power was in question as well. Within seconds, Rockland Trust was able to securely and simultaneously send messages to employees via text message, phone call, and email using AlertMedia. With AlertMedia’s multi-channel, two-way communication capabilities, the organization was able to ensure message deliverability, keeping employees safe and up to date.

Winter Storm Preparation Ensures Employee Safety and Business Continuity

Winter can have a chilling effect on employee safety, workforce productivity, and business operations. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The good news is that you can predict and plan for the risks associated with winter weather. AlertMedia’s modern emergency communication and threat intelligence solutions make it easier than ever to respond immediately and effectively to the many hazards of winter weather. Doing so will help you mitigate or even eliminate the impact of those risks on your employees and your business. By taking these six steps to prepare your business, you can ensure employee safety and business continuity all season long.

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