The pandemic disrupted businesses across all industries, causing a flurry of emergency rules, procedures and requirements to be reassessed and implemented. For many business leaders, it was a wakeup call in revealing the quality and level of their emergency preparedness. One year later, and warehouses in particular are still dealing with labor shortages, safety precautions and other disruptions associated with a disaster that can throw a wrench in normal warehouse operations.
This is all happening simultaneously, at a time when uninterrupted warehouse management is essential to keeping supply chains functional, ensuring business viability and serving communities. While we aren’t out of the woods yet, things are looking more positive. And with life starting to return to some version of normalcy, warehouse management teams can take some simple steps in reevaluating and implementing new emergency preparedness protocol to prevent future setbacks.
For warehouses and distribution centers across the country, safety is a top priority — perhaps even more so than most other workplaces. Due to the nature of the work, it’s standard practice for rules and regulations to be put into place to prevent machinery or vehicle accidents, and to educate workers on how best to prevent injury. No facility is truly safe, however, unless there’s a thorough emergency evacuation plan in place.
What Is a Disaster?
No one likes to think about worst-case scenarios, but as we’ve seen in this past year, it’s critical to your livelihood and the health and safety of your employees. When sitting down to do emergency preparedness planning, it’s important to first identify what could be a disaster. This will depend on the type of business you work in, and where your warehouse is located. OSHA suggests brainstorming emergency situations.
Disasters are inherently unexpected, so it’s important to get creative, and foresee not only common emergencies like warehouse fires, but also less obvious sources of disaster. Getting the whole staff involved can be the difference between a scare and a crisis. If you don’t identify what could happen, you won’t be ready when it does.
Are you near a route where hazardous materials are transported? What would happen if there was a toxic spill? Are you in an area where hurricanes take place? Floods? Earthquakes?
Are you prepared for potential warehouse-related accidents? What would you do if there were an electrical fire or accidental explosion? Unfortunately, we live in a world where you need to consider the possibility that someone might come into your workspace threatening violence.
Regardless of how big or small your business is, it’s important to address the “What-ifs.” As the Red Cross says: “Developing an emergency preparedness plan is one of the most important strategic decisions you will make as a small business owner.”
Prepare Your Staff
Any workplace should have emergency plans tailored to different possible disasters. Some situations might require a safety gathering inside the facility, such as a tornado, whereas a warehouse fire would dictate an evacuation to a safe zone outside.
When it comes to disasters, there’s no chance of a proper response if you and your staff aren’t well trained. Further, poorly prepared staff risk the chance of making a disaster worse. They may create unnecessary property damage, and the surrounding community could suffer from this lack of preparation as well. It’s critical, therefore, that when planning for safety in the warehouse, you include emergency preparedness.
There should always be a clear emergency chain of command set up before any problems occur. Each department should have both an appointed leader and a backup who will be responsible for gathering employees to the appropriate place. The meeting location should be known and agreed upon ahead of time, and a staff count needs to be taken by each section head when the group arrives at the predetermined location.
Each employee should be trained and tested on what the emergency plans are for evacuating the building. Warehouse managers should keep multiple copies of these plans visible throughout the facility, and staff should be reminded frequently of where they need to go and what they need to do. Workers should never be allowed back inside an evacuated building or out of a designated safe zone until they’ve been cleared to do so by emergency personnel. Administrators should have a clear plan for contacting those officials at the first sign of a threat or disaster.
Most importantly, emergency preparedness isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it type of plan. Make a point of revisiting the procedures, especially if you work in a warehouse with high turnover in employees or seasonal staff. It’s important to revisit, reevaluate and make sure everyone knows what to do and where to be in different emergency situations.
Your work environment is always changing. Different times of year will present varied types of potential emergencies. Frequently assess your emergency plan and make changes as needed. Several workers should be on a task force focused on emergency preparedness. The possibilities of what can go wrong are endless. To keep your entire staff emergency-prepared, include emergency awareness in regular rotation in your safety moments. It can be something as simple as asking that every employee identify where their nearest fire extinguisher is. This helps to keep staff emergency minded.
To go the extra mile, perform regular emergency drills, and everyone should treat these drills like the real thing. And, like the real thing, it’s important that you periodically surprise your workforce with these drills. The more realistic they are, the better. Where you can’t simulate circumstances — such as the smoke and heat of a fire — remind people what the scene might look like. In a fire, for instance, visibility might be poor and it could be hard to breathe. Work some unexpected circumstances into your drills, and have your team figure out how to handle them.
Drills are also a good time to test alert systems like alarms and PA systems. Workers need to know what your alert system sounds like. It’s also important that all employees know the entire building. Periodically walk the space with your workforce and point out safety features throughout. Where are the emergency exits? The fire extinguishers? The automated external defibrillator (AED) kits?
Prepare the Warehouse
That leads us to the important point of making sure the physical warehouse space is also prepared. Getting employees to safety during an emergency is the top priority, but there are other considerations to take into account for the business. Important documents and information should be kept in a fireproof lock box or other safe container that can withstand any type of disaster from floods to earthquakes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that all workers should fill out an emergency contact sheet that should be kept on a digital file and can be accessed from any location in case anyone remains unaccounted for after an evacuation.
If warehouse operations need to be manually shut down during an evacuation, it's important to know who on the staff will perform the necessary duties ahead of time. It's harder to make these decisions at the moment, so it's paramount that procedures are laid out ahead of time. Most conversations about safety in the warehouse focus on common workplace safety issues like preventing trips and falls or using tools properly. But what if disaster strikes?
There are several precautions that all workplaces should implement:
Beyond the basics though, several people in the workforce should contribute to creating protocols that apply to your warehouse’s specific disaster possibilities.
Put Together a Risk Management Plan
Risk management and mitigation planning should be an ongoing process, involving continual updates in response to changes in technology, manpower, product assortment, and the marketplace. Of course, specific emergencies often present unique risks, as is certainly the case with the COVID-19 outbreak. Warehouse management should draw on existing protocols and procedures while also reviewing and updating plans with all responsible parties over a teleconferencing platform. Topics to consider include:
It can require an investment to make sure your warehouse’s emergency preparedness is up to date on a regular basis, but the peace of mind that comes from the resulting safety and protection of your business and team is invaluable.
Gabe Grifoni is chief executive officer and co-founder of Rufus Labs.
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