An early cold snap in mid-November that made most places in the United States feel like the calendar had skipped ahead a couple of months raises the issue of severe winter weather preparedness.

Last winter’s extensive use of travel warnings – in some cases, outright bans on using roadways – highlighted the fact that not everyone knew whether they really should stay at home at the risk of running into trouble with their employers, or whether they should risk the trip and face the possibility of running into trouble with law enforcement personnel in the process.

The situation underscored the need by employers to educate employees on what it is expected of them in emergencies of any kind – natural or manmade.

Here are some questions that could draw attention to existing policies at your organization and help to identify areas where new or revised policies might be in order:

Do employees know who among them is considered essential and is expected to show up for work no matter what, such as during a snow storm or other severe weather event? Do they know who is expected to stay at home during such events?
What are your organization’s expectations for employees with regard to assisting others during an emergency? What about first aid, rescue, and evacuation plans?

How effective and reliable are the systems you use to notify employees (Email, text message, in-house paging system, messengers, etc.)? Do they know whom to contact in the event of an emergency? Is contact information clearly and conspicuously posted?

How does your organization confirm that employees are accounted for in an emergency at the workplace? What about those with disability and/or unique positions – or any workers whose jobs may place them outside normal routes ¬that may keep them from hearing pages or noticing other signals of an emergency? Do exits remain clear at all times?

Do you have and maintain a comprehensive inventory of substance that are potentially dangerous, as well as a list of the proper cleanup/containment equipment? Do you hold emergency response drills?

Do your emergency preparedness plans exist in multiple copies on multiple media?

Emergency operations plans should provide clear and definitive answers to these and a number of related questions. Rather than being locked away and allowed to collect dust, they should be viewed as dynamic documents, subject to revision as needed. Safety at your workplace could well depend on it.