Here’s what HR can do to prepare for the next weather crisis

Companies such as Walmart have extensive plans in place for extreme weather—for good reason.
By: | September 19, 2019 • 8 min read
Flooding, like south Texas is enduring this week, or a hurricane—or any natural disaster—is as much an HR problem as anything else.

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.

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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.

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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.

Related: How HR can prepare for a hurricane

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.

Tabletop Exercises

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.

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