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 foreplanning 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 considered hazardous enough to cause a workplace closure. Depending on company size/resources, a phone tree could be set up to inform employees of a closure, or a private-URL web page on which someone can post the closure, with reminder emails (including the link) sent out whenever bad weather is expected. 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 to be notified? What procedures need to be completed prior to 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 prior to 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 being trapped within the workplace for a period of time. If power is out and employees cannot leave, is there sufficient food, warm clothing, battery-operated lighting (if there is no 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 list to the action team. Some suggestions:
- Weather tracking app with emailed updates
- First aid app with cold weather-specific treatment
- Flashlight app, which casts a bright light (although it runs down a phone battery quickly)
- Winter survival guide
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 sufficent. 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 are important for treatment of walkways and parking lots. Place rugs or put floor marking traction tape by doorways to prevent slips and falls. (These can also help clear footware 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. Outdoor workers should be rotated to limit exposure, and hot liquids should be made available. When possible, outdoor work should be performed during the warmer hours of the day. Train employees on the symptoms of cold-related issues, as well as applicable 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... basically anywhere that is part of the employer's premises. If employees slip on the company sidewalk on their way into work in the morning—whether or not they've clocked in, and whether or not they're performing work duties at the time—they may still qualify for workers' compensation. In fact, any passerby that falls on your property can sue, and some municipalities have laws about how long you have after snowfall to clear a safe path, so find out your local regulations.
4. Prep the Pipes, Storm or not
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’s taken care of, time to enjoy the weather!