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By D. Brian Reider

As the horrible hurricane Harvey and Irma disasters unfolded recently, and wildfires have raged all over the West, we are reminded that the time is now to think carefully about disaster preparedness. Here in California, our most likely disaster scenarios are, of course, earthquakes and fires — although in many locations, floods may also occur. Every business should be prepared for the possibility of a disaster occurring while they have employees at work.

For many businesses, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates that they have formal disaster preparation plans in place. To assist all employers, OSHA has an excellent Evacuation & Shelter-in-Place web page that provides a checklist tool for planning.

Another valuable resource is The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s website, a sub-agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This single page has links to many other resources, including FEMA’s Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry, the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs and a comprehensive list of emergency contacts should any disaster strike.

Many other laws also may come into play when a disaster occurs, including the following:

  • The Family and Medical Leave Act – following a disaster, multiple leave requests may be made
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act – if employees must shelter in place, how must they be paid (if at all)?
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act – both during and after a disaster, employee ADA claims typically increase
  • The Occupational Health and Safety Act – as noted, OSHA has specific disaster preparation requirements
  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act – a federal law that includes workplace rights of members of the military service, including reservists who are called up to assist in a disaster.

The safety of employees and visitors to the business premises is the first responsibility of every employer. Liability could arise if anyone is injured due to an employer’s failure to reasonably anticipate risks including natural disasters. Once everyone is safe, the employer’s duties shift to making sure that there is a communications plan in place, and to assure that everyone on the premises is properly cared for until it is safe to evacuate.

Simply put, don’t wait until the disaster hits to think about your responsibilities. There are too many in Houston, Florida and elsewhere who learned the hard way that, as bad as things can get, they are even worse without a clear plan of action.

* This article first appeared in The Press-Enterprise on Sept. 30, 2017. Republished with permission.

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