Winter weather can affect your business in many ways. Your employees may not be able to get to work and are at higher risk for car accidents and cold-weather injuries. Your building also becomes vulnerable to structural damage under the weight of heavy snow. Through it all, you risk widespread power outages interrupting your operations. 

Winter storms cost the United States $2.1 billion in insured losses in 2019. Other estimates place the year’s total economic loss from winter storms closer to $8 billion. Winter storms in 2020 and beyond have continued to take their tolls on businesses wherever they hit.

With so much at stake, it’s critical to know how to prep for a winter storm before it strikes. Here are seven things you can do now to make sure your business survives the next storm. 

1. Assess Risks

Identify what risks are possible during a winter storm and what the potential business impact will be. Then, make a plan for each threat. Some of the dangers your business might encounter during a winter weather event include:

  • Unsafe driving conditions: Most companies must be concerned about their employees getting to and from work during winter storms. The risk is even greater if the work involves being on the road, such as making deliveries or house calls. Offices often close down to keep their employees safe, letting their teams work from home where possible.
  • Road closures: If your office doesn’t or can’t keep its employees home during a storm and its aftermath, employees may struggle to get to work regardless. Road closures because of accidents may block entire routes. You may even have a closure right outside the office, meaning no one can get to the parking lot.
  • Slip-and-fall injuries: Icy conditions in your parking lot or on your property is a hazard with potential legal consequences. An employee or visitor may sue your company for failing to deal with ice on your property if it causes a slip-and-fall injury. If your team is responsible for de-icing your parking lot or walkways, consider keeping the office closed until you’ve had time to sand, salt and de-ice your property.
  • Hypothermia and frostbite: If your employees perform work outdoors, you must be wary of cold stress. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) expects you to keep workers safe from recognized hazards like cold stress. If your team works outside during storms, such as clearing snow, you must train them to identify and prevent cold stress. Provide warm break areas and other accommodations to mitigate this risk.
  • Flight delays: Flight delays and cancelations can throw off business trips scheduled during winter storms. These risks can affect you long before a storm is scheduled to hit, or even if there’s a storm elsewhere in the country. When traveling for work during the winter season, plan to provide safe accommodations for employees who have their flights canceled. Consider rescheduling trips when a storm may impact flights.
  • School delays and closures: Employees with kids may need to take time off during winter storms if the local school system delays or cancels classes. Even if you expect employees to come in during weather events, some employees may have no choice except to stay home or come in late to care for their children. Consider allowing these employees to work from home or create a formal policy that addresses this issue.
  • Structural damage: Heavy snowfall and a thick layer of ice can add stress to your building’s roof. A winter storm could cause anything from a small leak to a roof collapse. The best way to prevent this is to maintain your roof year-round and continue monitoring its condition before and after storms.
  • Structure fires: The increased use of space heaters and electric generators combined with dryer air leaves homes and commercial buildings vulnerable to fires. Teach your employees about fire safety and set strict rules about using space heaters and candles in the workplace. 
  • Power outages: One of the biggest dangers of any storm is the potential for downed power lines and outages. High winds and heavy snow and ice can knock down trees and branches, wreaking havoc on the local power grid. Businesses that must stay open during a storm must also have a standby generator that can kick on in a power outage. If the power goes out unexpectedly, and you do not have a generator, you must keep employees safe. Stock up on emergency supplies like flashlights and blankets.

2. Educate Employees on Key Terminology

Predictions from local news stations and weather apps often provide conflicting forecasts and data. Ensure you and all your employees use accurate, reliable information when making decisions in anticipation of a winter storm. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service is a trustworthy source of information during winter storms and any dangerous weather event. Encourage your team to sign up for local national weather service alerts and make sure everyone uses sound data. That way, you can prepare best for the expected amount of snowfall and temperature conditions.

As you prepare for the winter season, remind employees of the terminology associated with winter storms. NOAA uses several designations, including:

  • Winter weather advisory: A winter weather advisory is the lowest-level warning a winter storm can earn. It indicates a significant inconvenience and slick conditions that could impact travel, but these conditions do not meet the criteria for a warning. While you generally won’t need to make a call, such as shutting down the office during an advisory, you might expect your team to experience extra traffic and delays. 
  • Winter storm watch: A winter storm watch is generally issued when hazardous conditions are possible within 12 to 36 hours. A winter storm watch signals businesses and individuals to start preparing. This could trigger specific preparations such as double-checking all emergency equipment and meeting to decide whether to close the office. 
  • Winter storm warning: When a watch develops into a warning, the storm is 12 to 24 hours away. There is higher confidence that the storm will hit, and you can expect severe conditions such as heavy snow or significant ice accumulation. When a warning is in effect, people should seek shelter.
  • Blizzard warning: When a blizzard is expected, strong winds over 35 miles per hour combine with snow, causing visibility to drop to 1/4 of a mile or less. You can also expect deep snow drifts and dangerous wind chill. 
  • Ice storm warning: During an ice storm, freezing rain will create dangerous ice accumulation. While the criteria vary by state, the warning is generally issued when a 1/4 inch of ice accumulation is expected.

Your company may have set policies regarding each of these warnings. If so, educate your team on what to do and expect during each issuance. For example, a winter storm warning might trigger your facilities team to begin preparing snow blowers, plows, shovels, sand and ice melt.

3. Determine Responsibilities

Before and during a winter weather emergency, there’s a lot to get done. Your team will need to make specific preparations such as testing the generator, stocking up on emergency supplies and planning office closures. When the storm is in full swing, someone needs to monitor current conditions and weather forecasts. After the storm lets up, someone will have to clear the parking lot and sidewalks. Through it all, someone needs to act as the central command, communicating updates to the entire team. 

Who will be responsible for what? Assign roles and responsibilities before the emergency arrives. That way, everyone already knows what to do when a storm hits, and nothing falls through the cracks.

During winter storm emergencies, some third parties may already be responsible for particular duties. Review your contracts with vendors such as insurance providers, property managers and landlords. Each contract should include provisions for winter weather, letting you know what you and other parties are responsible for. For example, some landlords may plow the parking lot and expect you to shovel the steps outside your main entrance. 

This is also an excellent time to identify third-parties that can help you through various scenarios. Gather up-to-date contact information for your heating contractor, plumber, landlord, local fire department and insurance agent. If you haven’t already, learn more about the emergency fuel delivery services from Foster Fuels: Mission Critical. We’re on standby to deliver petroleum gas, propane, kerosene, diesel, biodiesel, water and other specialty liquids anywhere in the country during emergencies. Whether you need generator fuel or heating oil to help you weather the storm, we can be your strategic partner.

You should know exactly what every third party will provide during a winter event and make plans to cover the other duties internally. On your own team, you will have many personnel involved with handling a winter weather emergency. Your HR, emergency operations, facilities and IT departments will all play a role in mitigating risks, communicating and responding to emergencies during a storm. 

Document a plan for all responsibilities. Outline clear trigger events, so everyone knows when to take action. For example, your team should have a deadline to decide whether to close the office or tell employees to go home early. That way, you decide in time to take action, and your employees know when to expect the ruling.

It can be helpful to develop a winter storm preparation checklist and assign someone to oversee it. Create sections for before, during and after the storm.

4. Prepare Your Emergency Resources

During hazardous winter weather events, people may need to shelter in place for up to 72 hours. If you plan to stay open through a storm, or your employees and visitors may be on-site when a storm hits, stock up on supplies to keep everyone safe. Your winter safety supply kits might include the following:

  • Flashlights and extra batteries
  • A battery-operated NOAA weather radio
  • Over the counter medicine
  • First aid kits
  • Food and water
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Emergency heat sources
  • Portable chargers and battery banks

Businesses with commercial fleets should keep an emergency kit inside every vehicle. These can be particularly critical if a worker gets stranded during a storm. Pack each car with:

  • Blankets
  • Flashlights
  • A tow rope
  • Sand or kitty litter
  • Bottled water and nonperishable food
  • A snow shovel, car scraper and brush
  • A cell phone charger and portable power bank
  • A spare tire
  • Jumper cables
  • A first aid kit
  • Emergency flares

Your building itself will also need some resources to weather through a storm. First, your facilities team will need an adequate supply of sand, road salt, ice melt and snow shovels. Prepare any snow blowers or plows by filling up the fuel tanks and testing the equipment.

Before a storm hits, check that your building is prepared. Since any storm has the potential to cause a power outage, installing emergency lighting is a good idea to keep building occupants safe. Also, install surge protectors to protect electronic equipment. If you have a standby power generator, test that it works and schedule a fuel fill-up if the tank is running low.

Keep up with regular roof repairs and maintenance throughout the year. If you have any outstanding maintenance needs, take care of them before the winter storm season. Before an upcoming storm, evaluate your roof and structural integrity. Add pipe insulation to protect your plumbing from freezing. Test your heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, alongside all lighting, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. 

5. Establish Shelter Locations

During a winter storm, your employees, customers and visitors may need to shelter in place. Establish on-site locations for shelter within your building, and stock them with emergency supplies. Ensure your shelters have enough room for anyone who may be at your business during the weather event. 

As you prepare a shelter location, identify a backup heating source for use during a power outage or HVAC failure. Make sure heating sources will only be used in ventilated rooms to prevent carbon monoxide gas buildup. Also, keep a fire extinguisher near space heaters and other backup heat sources. Your shelters should also have battery-powered smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, allowing them to keep working through a power outage.

6. Create a Business Continuity Plan

If your business needs to continue operations during a storm, prepare a thorough business continuity plan. Planning ahead lets your team know what to do and how to act through an emergency, so you can maintain 100% uptime during a crisis.

Determine which equipment and operations must remain functional throughout the event and its aftermath. Note that winter storms often bring power outages. Any computers, equipment and processes that need electricity should be connected with a standby generator. If you work with sensitive equipment that cannot shut down under any circumstances, such as medical equipment, you may also need an uninterruptible power supply. If you need help preparing for a power interruption, learn more about our site survey and continuity consulting services.  

7. Share Your Winter Storm Plan With Employees

Once you establish a plan, everyone needs to know their role. Ensure those responsible for shoveling snow, monitoring the weather and communicating with the team know what’s expected and when. Teach your employees how to respond in a winter weather emergency with help from our emergency response training services. We can help you respond to crises faster by imbuing techniques and strategies tailored to your unique business needs.

Remember that even those who have no active role in winter weather emergency response will be affected by the storm. Some employees may be asked to work from home. Others will need to perform critical operations at the office. Still others may have nonessential duties that cannot be performed remotely. Those employees will need to know what you expect from them. If you plan to postpone any operations or modify anyone’s schedule, make sure all employees are aware of the changes.

Besides roles and responsibilities, inform your employees of the risks and hazards they may be exposed to and how to stay safe. Issue reminders about space heater safety, such as not using them with an extension cord. Also, make sure employees know what electronic devices and equipment can and cannot be used when the backup generator is on. 

After you share your winter storm plan, keep the lines of communication open. Winter storms develop rapidly. An expected 4 inches of precipitation could snowball into 8 inches or even a foot with little warning. Employees and those holding key responsibilities will need frequent updates on the situation. 

You might consider an emergency communication system that allows you to distribute updates to your entire team quickly. This tool lets you cover your bases and ensure every employee can receive your message even if their internet or phone lines go down. These systems distribute critical information through text messages, phone calls and emails, giving every employee multiple avenues to receive critical communications.

Contact Foster Fuels for Emergency Services

A crucial part of any business continuity plan is having fuel for your standby generator and heating system. If you run out at the wrong moment, you face another emergency on top of the storm itself. Our unrivaled emergency fuel delivery service guarantees fuel delivery to any of our contracted customers. We help you cut out downtime by keeping your generator and heating system fueled, even when winter emergencies place added burdens on fuel supplies. Besides emergency fuel, we can also provide many emergency response services and consulting. 

Learn more about Foster Fuels emergency services, and contact us to talk more about preparing your business for a storm.