Pop quiz: What’s the most dangerous part of a natural disaster?
Answer: For an organization’s employees, it’s typically the post-recovery period.
“There are a ton of hazards,” says David Barry, national director for casualty risk control at Willis Towers Watson.
From the electrocution risks posed by downed power lines to the fire and asphyxiation dangers presented by portable generators, the intense clean-up and repair operations that typically follow in the wake of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes can be lethal when HR fails to ensure that a carefully considered recovery plan is in place, says Barry.
It’s yet another reason why a hurricane or tornado—or any natural disaster—is as much an HR problem as anything else.
From a weather perspective, we’re living in interesting times, and the data suggest they’ll only get more interesting. Last year was the fourth warmest on record, and scientists generally agree that rising ocean temperatures will lead to more intense hurricanes in the future. Further inland, hotter temperatures and less-frequent rainfall is leading to longer, more intense wildfire seasons in the U.S. and other countries.
Hotter, drier temperatures “are going to continue promoting the potential for fire,” John Abatzoglou, an associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Idaho, told the New York Times recently, describing the risk of “large, uncontainable fires globally” if warming trends continue. Unusually large fires this year in Siberia and the Amazon rainforest released enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, which will likely accelerate global warming—and increase the likelihood of major weather events.
Then there are the demographics. Over the last 20 years, nearly 8 million people have moved toward the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coastlines, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. “As our population continues to shift toward coastal areas, we have a lot more people and facilities exposed to these coming storms,” says Barry.
It all points to the need for companies to have a disaster-recovery plan in place well before a natural disaster hits, he says. Training and communications—which are often within HR’s purview—are essential elements of those plans.
“You’ll need to anticipate employees having lots of questions,” says Barry. “And in post-recovery, you’ll often have employees performing tasks they’re not used to doing, working with equipment they’re not familiar with. It’s important to plan well in advance.”
The Wellbeing of Others
Walmart, which has nearly 400 stores and facilities in Florida (which, up until the last moment, was thought to be in the direct crosshairs of September’s Hurricane Dorian) and employs close to 106,000 people in the state, is—like most national retailers—no stranger to coping with natural disasters.
Preparing for an event like a hurricane is a “team effort,” from store-level employees to the staff at the company’s Emergency Operations Center to those who’ll be responsible for making repairs afterward, says Jeff Lee, Walmart’s chief for people support and strategy at its EOC.
In addition to ensuring it has updated contact information for its employees and that they have key numbers to call for assistance, the retailer has put a number of programs in place to help employees. These include a program to assist full- and part-timers who miss work due to their store being closed and opportunities for employees to work at another Walmart location, says Lee.
The retailer’s Resources for Living program makes licensed counselors available to employees at no charge to them, says Lee, while employees who suffer a “severe loss” due to a weather event can obtain financial assistance through its Associate in Critical Need Trust program.
Employees tend to have common questions before and after an event, typically around whether their facility is closed, when they can return to work and whether they can assist with helping the facility re-open, says Lee. However, the most frequent question is, “How are my fellow associates?”
“They genuinely are concerned about the wellbeing of one another,” he says.
Companies like Walmart, which have operations spread over a wide geographic area, typically have carefully thought-out disaster-preparedness plans in place. But simply having a DPP isn’t enough—managers and employees must be familiar with it, says Barry.
“I’m a big fan of ‘tabletop exercises,’ ” he says.
A tabletop exercise is a simulation in which key team members meet to discuss the DPP and their roles in it and analyze what they’d do in a variety of scenarios. The goal, says Barry, is to ensure that the plans stay relevant and employees understand their responsibilities.
“You can have a plan but then, when disaster is about to strike, you find out a key person has left or a vendor you’d planned to rely on is no longer available,” he says. “By holding a tabletop exercise at least once a year, you can stay prepared.”
DPPs should include provisions for safety training—ensuring employees understand how to operate portable generators safely, for example, and know the precautions to take when downed electrical wires are nearby, says Barry.
Communication is also vital, particularly around benefits, says Jo Acker, senior director for communications and change management at Willis Towers Watson.
“You need to have a strategy for reaching employees who may not have access to the company computer network,” she says.
Companies shouldn’t just have a communication plan in place—they should also be prepared for the likelihood that their normal modes of communication will be disrupted.
“Whether it’s email, Zoom or Skype, your regular format for communicating may not work during or immediately after a hurricane,” says Renata Elias, a vice president and consultant with Marsh Risk Consulting. It’s best for organizations to prepare ahead of time by setting up an 800 number for employees to dial into and consider alternate ways of sending out information, such as a Twitter feed and texting, she says.
“Make sure employees know about these alternatives,” says Elias. “A robust plan for events like hurricanes should have built-in redundancies.”
Control the “Controllables”
Terry Lyles, a stress consultant and author of the soon-to-be-released book Performance Under Pressure: Crack Your Personal Stress Code and Live the Life of Your Dreams, has worked with emergency responders and members of the armed forces dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. One of the most important things organizations can do, he says, is to keep in mind that employees are often preoccupied with an upcoming weather event even as they’re trying to do their jobs.
“They’re trying to deal with life as they’re working—’Will I have access to fresh water? Will I have enough fuel? How can I keep my family safe?—so be really sensitive to people’s psyches during times like these,” he says.
Lyles—who, incidentally, is based in South Florida—adds that, in the wake of a hurricane or other extreme weather event, an invaluable approach to stress management is to try and keep things in perspective.
“The important thing is to try and control the ‘controllables,’ ” he says. “If you’ve survived without major loss of life or losing your house, then count your blessings and stay focused. All the rest of it is simply clean-up and doing what you have to do.”
HR can help alleviate employee stress by anticipating the questions they’ll have and ensuring the relevant information is accessible, says Acker. Vendors can often be vital sources of this information, she adds.
“Many vendors have great material around what to do during a disaster, such as a community guide on where to go for support, who to contact for power outages or road issues, tips on applying for disaster assistance and what to do if you have flood-related damage to your house,” she says. “It’s better to take advantage of these existing resources rather than trying to create them yourself.”
Benefits such as back-up childcare and financial-wellness tools can be critical for employees during such times, says Acker. Some of her client organizations provide special benefit provisions in the event of natural disasters—these include waiving co-insurance, copays and fees for things like medical consultations and emergency-room visits, she says.
“I have one client that, during Hurricane Harvey, allowed employees to submit requests for paycheck advances, and thousands of employees did,” says Acker. “It gave the company a tangible way to show employees it cared about them.”
For employees faced with major home-property damage, the stress of natural disasters will (naturally) be intensified.
Ann Cosimano, general counsel for insurer ARAG, wrote in this piece for HRE last year about the precautions employers and their workers need to take to guard against identity theft and consumer scams in the wake of storms. Homeowners can be especially vulnerable to scams while they’re in the process of trying to find contractors to repair storm-related damage, she writes. They can also be confused or uninformed about their rights and responsibilities in such matters—for example, they’re responsible for clean-up and removal of damage from their property even when the damage came from a fallen tree limb from their neighbor’s property (unless the homeowner can prove negligence on the part of their neighbor in maintaining the property). Employees should be made aware of the red flags to watch out for when evaluating contractors (for example, repair estimates that are significantly lower than competitors’) and to have all contracts reviewed by an attorney before signing them.
HR should also be ready to help their companies avoid public-relations disasters. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, some Florida residents complained of being coerced by their employers to report to work regardless of the storm—or else be fired. Companies such as Lowe’s and Pizza Hut blamed “rogue managers” for violating company policy by requiring them to work, but the damage was done.
HR leaders should ensure their contingency plans address the questions employees are likely to have, such as whether or not they’ll continue to be paid if the workplace remains closed, when they’ll be able to return and whether help will be available for employees whose homes have been lost or severely damaged, says Elias.
“The quicker employees are back on their feet at home, the quicker they can get back to the workplace,” she says.
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