Previous harsh winters have crippled businesses across the country, with the big chill of 2010 costing industry an estimated £45 billion. From being snowed in and running out of stock, to having to shut your pharmacy because staff can't get in, there are plenty of things that can go wrong when the mercury falls.
"Independents are potentially more vulnerable in extreme weather conditions as they are less likely to have back up for tackling the situation," says Hilary Cunningham, Numark's information pharmacist. "Some lack equipment that can prevent issues in the first place; many won't have the financial security that would provide immediate replacement of damaged stock; and they can lack the support of a head office to, say, organise insurance claims, recover data or clean up. "However, the good news is that independents can react to situations very quickly because they are more familiar with their local environment and customer base. With a few basic contingency plans in place, you can overcome the situation – unless it is extremely serious."
Harsh winter weather can mean more than just snow and ice. There's flooding – particularly from burst pipes – as well as fire risks from electrical faults or the use of extra heating devices, so it's worth acting now to protect your premises. It's a good idea to have sandbags on hand to cover doorways from the threat of rising flood waters or burst drains and you could install a metal or rubber flap on the bottom of external doors to stop water getting in.
To avoid potential electrical damage, check appliances for broken plugs or exposed cords, which can cause electrical fires. If you're plugging in extra devices, don't overload extension cords and tape down trailing wires to prevent a trip hazard for you or your customers. Keep heating appliances at least a metre from any combustible materials and make sure you have working fire extinguishers close at hand. It's also worth nominating a member of staff to check all heating equipment has been turned off at the end of the day.
Consider your data as well. You're probably already in the habit of backing up computers regularly, but think what other forms – such as paper files – may be lost to flood or fire and make appropriate storage and back-up plans.
At any time of year, it's your responsibility to ensure a safe work environment for your staff. But, when it comes to planning for winter weather disruptions, you also need a contingency plan in place in case employees can't make it in to work.
Unfortunately for pharmacy employees, working from home is not a viable option, but if they can't get in then you are going to be understaffed. Work out a plan for alternative cover if possible – perhaps rostering staff who live within walking distance of the pharmacy on predicted bad weather days.
A list of phone numbers for each staff member is essential – kept at home and work," advises Ms Cunningham. "This should include numbers for colleagues, other local pharmacies, CCG and area teams and local surgeries, as well as police, the insurance company, plumber, glazier, locksmith and energy supplier."
According to the government's Great Business blog you're under no obligation to pay an employee who fails to attend work, even if it's due to bad weather, as it can be argued they are in breach of contract. However, the blog states: "If an employee has to take time off during bad weather to look after their children, for example, due to a school closure, they are entitled to unpaid dependant's leave."
The blog suggests writing a ‘bad weather policy' setting out how your business will react and what employees can expect from you, including who staff should contact in the event that they can't make it in, and who will contact them if the pharmacy won't open. If staff do manage to get in but are worried about getting home again, nominate someone to monitor updates (on the internet or local radio) about road closures and public transport cancellations and be flexible in allowing staff to leave early to avoid any further bad weather or travel disruptions.
If your staff can't get in because of snow-blocked roads or traffic chaos then it's likely the vans delivering your stock will also struggle, so make sure you have got enough on your shelves to cover you for a few days in case you've got no immediate way of restocking.
Also think what you would do if a power cut put your pharmacy fridge out of action. The temperature at which some medicines are stored is vital and, if the contents are spoilt, the resulting wastage can be costly.
Installing a generator will ensure your pharmacy has an emergency power supply if there is a blackout, which will not only protect the contents of your fridge but enable you to access your computers, use electronic tills and ultimately keep your pharmacy open.
Your delivery service
"Collection and delivery services become even more important in icy conditions and it's worth signing up customers to a service before the cold weather sets in," says Ms Cunningham. If your pharmacy offers this service then now is also the time to order snow tyres for your vans and make an emergency kit for drivers with a shovel and a bag of grit, as well as a blanket and some sugary snacks, so they can get themselves out of a slippery road-surface situation, or wrap up and keep warm if they get stuck and have to wait for assistance.
Bad weather disruption that causes you to lose money may be covered on your business insurance, or you might at least be insured for things like power outages or surges, which affect the running of your fridges or damage your computers. Your insurer will be able to clarify what's covered if it's not clear from the policy wording.
Fiona and Keith McElrea, Whithorn Pharmacy, Whithorn, Dumfries & Galloway
One day last winter, parts of south west Scotland woke up to 10 feet of snow, after the heaviest blizzards for 40 years. Fiona and Keith McElrea borrowed a tractor (right) from a nearby farm to get to work and ensure the pharmacy was open as usual. They arrived to find no power, so they had to work without computers, but were still able to provide about 50 customers with their medicines.
"We learned a lot from the experience," says Fiona. "We are definitely thinking of investing in a generator this year so that we can guarantee we have power and access to our records. "Luckily for us, we don't tend to run our stock down too much, but I'd also advise anyone planning for winter emergencies to make sure you've got enough to cover you for a couple of days at least."
The Met Office has launched a weather warnings widget that you can add to your own website and alerts you to the latest weather warnings in your area. It is free to download from http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/services/desktop-widget You can choose the content and layout, and then copy the html script to embed it in your website. A Met Office spokeswoman says: "This widget could be really useful for pharmacists. It lets you know in advance when severe weather is on the way and helps you plan what actions you might need to take."
● Great Business greatbusiness.gov.uk ● Download free business continuity management documents from talkingbusinesscontinuity.com/useful-documentation/free-resources.aspx