Extreme weather can present a major challenge for companies that make worksite safety a top priority. Conditions like lightning, strong winds and flooding can make good safety practices much harder to follow — in some cases, it may even seem impossible to keep employees safe without stopping work altogether.

With the right practices, you can keep workers safe during extreme weather — no matter what conditions you are up against.

The first step in preparing for extreme weather is with an effective and easy-to-follow disaster preparedness plan. 

The OSHA standard 1910.381 requires that all employers with 10 or more employees maintain some kind of written emergency plan. 

This plan needs to cover how workers on-site can keep themselves safe during an emergency — including extreme weather. Having a plan in place before an event strikes is the only way to truly ensure worker safety.

Key plan elements 

Every plan should include a few basic elements, including emergency roles, escape or exit routes, and designated safe spaces. 

Emergency roles cover who does what. They may include people who disseminate information about the emergency, as well as site supervisors who coordinate any necessary response. 

Exit routes should be easy to find and reliable — for example, don’t include roads that may be inaccessible during a flood. The chosen thoroughfares should also make it easy for supervisors to account for all personnel during an evacuation.

If you have typically visitors or non-staff on-site, your plan will also need to account for how your response team will get them to safety.

Designated safe spaces are safety zones during a specific kind of emergency. For example, you may need to maintain or identify areas where employees can shelter during a tornado.

You’ll also want to include any information about emergency alert systems you’ll use to inform employees. For example, some safety professionals recommend that workers in hurricane-prone areas download and use weather emergency apps that can alert others to their location and needs.

Building a weather plan 

The extreme weather you’ll face will vary depending on your location. Snow, sleet, tornadoes and hurricanes can strike almost anywhere in the United States, but your region is likely more vulnerable to some conditions than others.

While some emergency response practices will be effective in almost every situation, a robust plan must be tailored for the threats a worksite is most likely to face.

Major, damaging weather events — like hurricanes and floods — are often the first that come to mind when we think of extreme weather. However, a good plan should also include best practices for extreme heat and cold — which can be just as deadly as more obvious threats.

If you have staff that need to work outdoors and you’re in an area where temperatures regularly rise above 90 degrees — or wind chill temperatures dip below -18 degrees — you should plan for how you’ll keep them safe.

Awareness will be especially important in cases like these. Not everyone knows the signs of heat exhaustion, heatstroke or cold stress. In addition to safety drills, classes that inform workers about potential dangers can be valuable.

Keeping employees ready 

An emergency response plan will be most effective if your workers are familiar with its recommendations and can follow them with confidence. Regular drills can keep employees informed and identify potential weak spots in a plan.

The frequency and structure of these drills will depend on the resources you have available and your plan’s complexity. You should develop a schedule and stick to it for maximum effectiveness.

OSHA’s book of recommendations on planning for workplace emergencies suggests that employers “hold practice drills as often as necessary to keep employees prepared.” It says they should “include outside resources such as fire and police departments when possible.”

It’s also good practice to have an emergency organizational chart that shows how information will be disseminated during an extreme weather event. A clear chain of command or organizational structure can help ensure that everyone is informed — from executive staff to office workers to employees on-site or in the field.

With the right planning, you can keep workers safe during extreme weather. Foresight and good communication are vital. If your employees know how to respond during an emergency — and you have a team providing them with updates and information — they’ll be much more likely to take the steps that will keep them safe.