How to help keep staff safe when adverse weather strikes: 5 hospitals weigh in

When adverse weather hits — such as the massive winter storm that hammered the East Coast last week — hospitals spring into action to ensure staff are taken care of.

This includes providing sleeping accommodations for employees who can't commute safely, as well as offering them food and essential items.

Here, five healthcare organizations discuss how they take care of staff during adverse weather.   

University of Virginia Health System

During severe winter storms, Charlottesville-based University of Virginia Health System converts about 150 exam rooms — which are in a building primarily configured for clinics — into overnight accommodations, says Tom Berry, the system's director of emergency management. Air mattresses are brought in as beds.

He says the organization typically doesn't have to set up these accommodations for longer than 36 hours, and the number of staff taking advantage of overnight accommodations has ranged from two dozen to more than 200.

In addition to overnight accommodations, UVA Health System routinely provides meal vouchers to employees during winter storms so they can eat in the cafeteria. The organization also tries to provide entertainment, such as a movie, along with linens and toiletry kits, as needed.

Massachusetts General Hospital

Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital typically accommodates staff at least a couple times each year during winter storms.

The facility's approach is to set up "sleep rooms" for employees, divided based on gender and monitored by security, according to Paul Biddinger, MD, medical director for emergency preparedness at MGH. The hospital also ensures food and toiletry kits are available for staff on-site.

Dr. Biddinger says the hospital also provides employees with a list of area hotels as well as extra parking spaces and child care support services.

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

CHOP sends hospital staff members text and email alerts when there is a winter storm warning or pending weather emergency.

These alerts include information about how to come to work in a safe manner, how to make arrangements if they need to stay overnight, and any other relevant information pertaining to the weather event, says Tina Cermignano, senior operations manager for environmental services and linen, quality assurance and business systems.

CHOP has more than 500 air mattresses for staff to use if they decide to stay overnight. Accommodations are typically in offices, conference rooms, ancillary areas or clinics that are only open to patients during the day. Patient rooms are not utilized as sleep rooms, and staff are provided sheets, a pillowcase, a towel and a blanket. 

In addition to the accommodations, CHOP offers meal vouchers to staff if the situation is deemed an emergency by the hospital's emergency planning team, says Nancy Schneck, senior director of environmental and linen services. Depending on the severity and duration of the storm, staff may also have the opportunity to watch a movie or the news on TVs in the cafeteria.

The hospital's Environmental Services Department team not only converts CHOP into "hoteling mode" during storms but also during other large events. For instance, the hospital accommodated staff during Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia in 2015. During the days-long event, no one was permitted to drive in that area of the city. The hospital accommodated staff, and its food services team provided meals.

"So CHOP is very supportive … [and] will try, depending on the circumstances to support staff to the maximum," Ms. Schneck says.

She says supporting staff in this way also plays very heavily into staff engagement and morale, and ultimately how they feel about working at CHOP.

Tufts Medical Center

Boston-based Tufts Medical Center made available 60 private rooms for employee lodging, if needed, during last week's winter storm. It also partnered with local hotels to secure discounted rooms for employees during the snowstorm, according to a Boston Herald report.

Tufts spokesperson Jeremy Lechan says the hospital typically takes these measures for employees whenever there are particularly adverse weather conditions.

NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi

NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi in the Bronx, N.Y., initially offered staff cots in a defunct unit during Hurricane Irene in 2011 with about 25 inpatient rooms. Now, having gone through several severe weather events, the facility converts available space that can accommodate 50 to 60 staff overnight, according to Janice Halloran, emergency preparedness chairperson and senior associate director of the department of adult and pediatric emergency medicine, hyperbaric medicine and admitting at Jacobi. The medical center provides staff with linens, a bed, a change of clothes and other needed items.

"We assign private rooms…, and we have staff on the unit to make sure everyone has what they need," Ms. Halloran says.

She says the hospital also provides food and has even provided ice scrapers before for staff to use on their vehicles.

Ms. Halloran says all of these efforts wouldn't be possible without the hospitality command center, which is run by the same group of 10 or 15 people during each event.  

"It's become sort of the norm at this point. It's not just a novelty anymore. It's become part of how we function," she says of the accommodation efforts.


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