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Consider this a test of your emergency preparedness.
You’re in the office when the floor begins to undulate. It takes you a moment to process what’s happening — an earthquake — but by then the shaking has intensified. Suddenly, the lights flicker and go dark. Bookshelves and desks topple and jerk across the room. Windows shatter. What do you do next?
If you don’t have an answer, it’s time to get serious about preparing your small business for a workplace emergency. After all, not many of us think clearly when facing life-or-death situations. Creating a crisis management plan as part of National Preparedness Month can help you, your employees, and your company survive — no matter when the really big one strikes.

What Is a Workplace Emergency?

Nobody wants to be at their desk when a disaster unfolds, but the unfortunate truth is emergencies happen without regard for time or place. A workplace emergency is defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as “an unforeseen situation that threatens your employees, customers, or the public; disrupts or shuts down your operations; or causes physical or environmental damage.” These emergencies can be natural or manmade, including:

  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Earthquakes
  • Fires
  • Toxic gas releases
  • Chemical spills
  • Radiological accidents
  • Explosions
  • Power outages
  • Civil disturbances
  • Workplace violence resulting in bodily harm and trauma
  • Terrorism

Small businesses can also experience company-specific crises. These can include the loss, illness, or serious injury of company leaders, an IT systems failure, public relations problems, or even a downturn in the financial market. A well-crafted crisis management plan can help you deal with these threats as well.

Conduct Solid Research

Start with thorough research. Gather information about common risks in your industry, possible natural disasters in your area, and other relevant environmental factors.
“Top management personnel need to pull together experts in various fields to identify the biggest threats in terms of a possible disaster,” explains Kathy Hubbell, a crisis management expert and owner of consulting firm AdScripts. “These experts may be employees, or they may be vendors. It helps to research examples of disasters that have happened to similar companies.”
Robert D. Sollars, a 33-year veteran of the security field with extensive experience writing crisis management plans, recommends that “all levels of the company be involved in the planning process, from hourly employees to the C-suite.” He recommends using focus groups and surveys to gather information from key stakeholders.

Write Your Plan Down

Once you have conducted research, you need to put your plan in writing. OSHA recommends that you include the following basic information:

  • A preferred method for reporting fires and other emergencies;
  • An evacuation policy and procedure;
  • Emergency escape procedures and route assignments, such as floor plans, workplace maps, and safe or refuge areas;
  • Names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of individuals both within and outside your company to contact for additional information or explanation of duties and responsibilities under the emergency plan;
  • Procedures for employees who remain to perform or shut down critical operations, operate fire extinguishers, or perform other essential services that cannot be shut down for every emergency alarm before evacuating; and
  • Rescue and medical duties for any workers designated to perform them.

But that’s just the beginning. Info Entrepreneurs recommends adding these valuable items to your plan:

  • a list of the primary business functions you need to quickly get back up and running after a disaster
  • an outline of all of the resources you’ll need to get back to business as usual

While you want to be detailed and organized, Eden Gillott Bowe, a crisis and reputation management expert at Gillott Communications, cautions against going too in depth. “The biggest mistake — besides not having a plan — is making one that’s so lengthy and boring it ends up sitting in a drawer unread,” she says. “That’s not an effective crisis plan; it’s an expensive paper weight.”
Because of this, it can be worthwhile to create several emergency plans for different types of crises instead of drafting up one comprehensive plan. Once the key stakeholders have signed off on the plan (or plans), distribute it to staff members. Be sure to save a digital version that can be accessed remotely.

Test Your Plan

But remember: writing the plan down is only the first step. Roleplaying your plan will ensure your team knows what to do in the event of an emergency and will help you work out any possible kinks.
“Testing is, without a doubt, the most overlooked portion of the crisis management pipeline,” says Drew Farnsworth, an operations manager at a disaster recovery company based outside of  Philadelphia. “We have seen many businesses that have implemented crisis management plans only to realize when it’s too late that there were key deficiencies in their processes which severely hampered their responses.”
Test your policy by running emergency drills, making sure all the contact numbers work, and confirming that everyone understand their roles.
Finally, set regular intervals to review and update your crisis management plan and to do emergency prevention tasks, such as changing the batteries in your smoke detectors, checking your fire extinguishers, testing security systems, backing up your servers, and updating important passwords.

Other Tips for Crisis Preparedness

Being prepared for a disaster also means supplementing your crisis management plan with additional resources. Here are some to consider:

  • Keep Survival Supplies at Work. Supply kits can be a literal lifesaver in the event of a natural disaster. A basic kit could include a small supply of food and water, a flashlight, a clock, a radio, an emergency blanket, a toothbrush, and toothpaste.
  • Get a First Aid Kit. Similarly, all offices should have a first aid kit at hand. This can help address wounds until emergency services are available to provide further help.
  • Learn CPR. Did you know that if CPR is performed within the first few minutes of cardiac arrest, it can triple a person’s chance of survival? Keeping your employees updated on CPR can save someone’s life.
  • Sign up for SMS Emergency Alerts. You can opt into a government service that will alert you via text message of impending disasters.

It takes work to plan for emergencies, but Boy Scouts, seismologists, and first responders will all tell you how important preparedness really is. When you take the time to create a crisis management plan, you can rest easy, knowing that when disaster strikes — from the annoying to the unthinkable — you’ll be ready for it.

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