Even if you don't live somewhere that puts you neck-deep in snow several months of the year, you probably need to make winter storm preparations. But how do you prepare your workplace, and what do you do once the storm hits?
The problem with disaster planning is, it's difficult to get into the spirit of things while the weather is NOT disastrous. But a disaster with no fore-planning becomes a much bigger disaster. So let's knuckle under and just get this thing done with these four steps.
1. Form an Action Team
The first step is to form a committee. As with most planning operations, ownership equates to action.
Put an employee in charge of weather watch. Choose someone who is on top of weather predictions and current conditions, who is ready to initiate emergency weather plans when needed. An employee on an early shift is an ideal choice, so that critical closure decisions can be made before the whole staff shows up for the day.
Outline standards as to what conditions are hazardous enough to cause workplace closure. Depending on company size/resources, a phone tree could be set up to inform employees of closure. Another option could be a private-URL web page on which someone can post the closure, with reminder emails (including the link) sent out whenever bad weather is anticipated. Don't forget to apprise new hires of the emergency weather system.
Determine which employees are crucial to operations. If there are critical employees that must work regardless of weather, an emergency plan should be devised as to how they can get to work. Consider mass transit, rides with other employees, hotel stays nearby when inclement weather is predicted, or making arrangements for working remotely.
2. Create a List and Check it Twice
Assess the possibility of vendor closures: will it impact timelines/customers if there are closures or delays with deliveries, bank/payroll, staffing agencies, security? If your company is in a building owned by another party, will employees be able to access the premises if building management shuts down? Make backup arrangements for these conditions. Be sure that financial/contractual obligations can still be met in a worst-case scenario.
Create a checklist for early closure scenarios. Which vendors need notice? What needs to be complete before leaving? Be sure to factor in the possibility that if bad weather continues, work may not resume the following day, so mission-critical upcoming deadlines may need to be met before closure, or key personnel may need to say behind.
Assess supplies: are they sufficient for a worst-case scenario? Inclement weather in some regions could result in a full staff stuck within the workplace for a while. Should the power go out and employees cannot leave: Is there sufficient food, warm clothing, and battery-operated lighting or a generator? A battery-operated radio can be helpful for weather updates. Critical computers and servers may require an emergency backup system so that an outage won't result in lost data.
Compile a list of emergency phone numbers. Pre-load appropriate apps to your phone, and distribute a phone list to the action team. Some suggestions:
If you contract with an outside service for snow/ice removal, vet the policy to assure that their turnaround times match legal requirements to protect you from liability. Their contract probably protects them from claims, so most likely, it is the company's responsibility to make sure that snow/ice is removed promptly and sufficiently. Check through the insurance policy to be sure that liability coverage is sufficient. If there any accidents or storm damage, take pictures immediately for possible insurance or workers' compensation claims.
3. Take it Outside
Put someone (or a team) in charge of snow/ice removal and outdoor safety, but encourage all employees to report potentially unsafe conditions. Keep items on hand to remove snow from roofs and trees that overhang structures. (Remember to use appropriate fall protection.) Bags of salt and/or sand help treat walkways and parking lots. Place rugs or put floor marking traction tape by doorways to prevent slips and falls. (These can also help clean footwear of sand or other tracked grit.) Post "wet floor" signs as needed. If snow levels are deep enough, place reflective posts around hazards such as fire hydrants or other unexpected items that someone might drive over or into when not visible. Extra outside lighting can help make ice visible and reduce slips.
Train any employees working outside on the hazards associated with cold temps and weather conditions. OSHA has some helpful info. Rotate outdoor shifts to limit exposure, and hot liquids should be made available. When possible, perform outdoor work during the warmer hours of the day. Educate employees on the symptoms of cold-related issues, as well as first aid.
OSHA's PPE mandate--to provide employees with gear appropriate to work conditions--does not extend to standard cold-weather clothing such as coats, hats, and gloves. However, icy cold conditions increase the likelihood of workers' compensation claims, particularly slips and falls on ice and snow. And workers' comp claims can be made for incidents that take place on company parking lots and sidewalks ... anywhere that is part of the employer's premises. If employees slip on the company sidewalk —whether they've clocked in and whether they're performing work duties at the time — they may still qualify for workers' compensation. Any passerby that falls on your property can sue, and some municipalities have laws about how long you have after a snowfall to clear a safe path. It is worthwhile to find out your local regulations.
4. Prep the Pipes
Don't forget the pipes when temps drop below freezing:
- Keep a trickle of water running for any pipes that connect outside or to unheated areas
- Make sure key employees know the location of the main water shutoff valve
- Wrap outside exposed pipes with appropriate insulating materials
- Make sure downspouts don't direct water onto walkways
FEMA offers free winter storm training resources (PDF), as well as other hazardous weather materials.
Established safety standards, an action plan, and employee role designation are key to maintaining a safe environment, regardless of conditions.
Now that that is taken care of, time to enjoy the weather!