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Is your business ready for a flu pandemic?

Is your business ready for a flu pandemic?

Adam Gorley, Assistant Editor, HRinfodesk.com---Canadian Payroll and Employment Law News, May 2009

The topic of pandemic influenza raises myriad issues for businesses as well as individuals; and given the fractured and widespread nature of news media today, it's not surprising that many Canadians are finding these issues confusing or unclear.

What is “Human Swine Flu”/Influenza A(H1N1), and where does it come from? How do people get this flu, and what can people do to protect themselves? Are Canadians in imminent danger from this flu? Is a vaccine available? Can't we just wait until the vaccine is available? Is there any real risk of outbreak, or is it all just hype? How might this flu affect my business, on a small or large scale? Do I have legal obligations in the event of an outbreak or pandemic? What are they? How and what should I communicate to my employees? What can I do to prepare for a flu outbreak or pandemic? Where can I find relevant and up-to-date information on this flu or others, and what to do in the event of a pandemic? What resources are available to help me continue to run my business as usual during an outbreak or pandemic? These are just some of the questions business owners and employees are asking in the face of sometimes overwhelming media coverage of the Human Swine Flu threat.

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a neat and tidy package of information at your fingertips where you could find the answers to all (or at least the most important) of these questions when you needed them? Well, that is precisely the information you would find in a customized business pandemic preparedness plan. But according to several sources, including Hewitt Associates, only a minor fraction of Canadian businesses have one. That's why in our latest HRinfodesk poll, we wanted to find out: Does your employer have a pandemic preparedness plan in place to deal with a large outbreak of flu or another major illness?

Given the number and severity of recent viral outbreaks in Canada recently (West-Nile Virus, ongoing since 2002, SARS in 2003; Avian Flu/H5N1 in 2005; and now Swine Flu/H1N1), the results might be surprising: out of 195 poll respondents, only 55 (29 percent) said their employers have a pandemic preparedness plan in place; while 132 (68 percent) of respondents said no. A further three percent of respondents were unsure whether their employers had a plan.

There are a number of reasons why a business might not go to the trouble of preparing a pandemic plan-maybe they feel they have too few employees for it to make a difference, that it's just not appropriate for their business, or they have no time to prepare such a plan-but if you think that either a pandemic flu outbreak will never happen, or that it wouldn't affect your business even if it did happen, you would do well to think again. If a flu pandemic happened, even if your business and employees were somehow not directly affected, it is unlikely that your customers, suppliers, or even your employees' families would enjoy the same immunity. While your business process might continue running as usual, your supply chain could fall apart and your customers might stop buying. These are the unpredictable and uncontrollable effects that require advance preparation.

The advantages of preparing a pandemic plan are many, and they don't simply cover what to do when an outbreak occurs. A good plan should cover prevention and protection-for example, what procedures can I put in place to increase hygiene in my workplace and to allow employees to work from home?-and will also provide critical information on the legal implications of dealing with an outbreak, from employee safety (how does an employer's “duty of care” apply when it comes to pandemics?) to insurance considerations (what does my insurance plan cover in the event of a flu pandemic?). These aren't the sorts of things that anybody wants to be figuring out at the last minute.

A common thought about the threat of pandemic is that the media has blown the situation out of proportion. One astute HRinfodesk subscriber writes:

I am concerned that the media has blown this “swine” flu way out of proportion. Each year thousands of people die from influenza and no one panics. Now a handful of cases (relatively speaking) that are not serious, and the public is in panic mode. My concern is that we may be creating a “cry wolf” scenario and when something truly serious and of pandemic proportion occurs, the public may not be so quick to comply.

Since there are no confirmed fatalities attributed to Swine Flu in Canada, and very few “severe” cases here, it does appear that there is a disconnect between the facts and the message. And some might certainly argue that the media have gone into “panic mode”, but these issues are beside the point. There is an accepted and objective measurement of pandemic, delivered by the World Health Organization, and disseminated by local health authorities-in Canada, the Public Health Agency or the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS); in the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. In theory, the media should not affect the judgments of these bodies; and businesses and individuals should feel safe relying on these public bodies to inform them of true health risks.

The real issue is what to do in the event of a true flu pandemic-one confirmed by the WHO. While we certainly can't predict when that will happen, or even if it will happen, we can prepare ourselves for the potentially devastating personal and economic effects if it does. And if we take those steps well in advance, we will be far better able to make it through with our health intact, and we will also be better able to separate the scientific facts from the media's “fictions”.

So let's take a look at what's involved in a pandemic preparedness plan.

Risks associated with a pandemic

The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) outlines three general areas where a flu outbreak might cause damage to business:

  • Absenteeism - The OHSA notes that up to 40 percent of a workplace might be affected either directly or indirectly by an outbreak. Employees might be forced to stay home to take care of themselves or their family members, possibly for several weeks.
  • Presenteeism - Sick employees might come into work, reducing productivity and increasing the risk of infecting other workers.
  • Commerce Disruption - As mentioned, both customers and suppliers will also be experiencing the effects of the outbreak. As a result, your business may simply be unable to acquire supplies and materials, or make sales and collect revenue, particularly if these things are imported or exported across international borders. Absentee or presentee employees will only add to the difficulties of running the business.

In addition, the CCOHS points out that temporary workers would likely also be unavailable to fill spots vacated by sick workers; travel restrictions may prevent people from leaving for business trips or returning from them, thus delaying plans and possibly increasing expenses; increased demand for health care might cause unexpected problems for sick employees or those with sick relatives; and an extreme case might even involve disruptions to essential services, from police and fire departments to utilities, banking and food.

Having and following a good pandemic preparedness plan might not prevent these things from happening, but it could reduce the damaging effects and prepare you to handle them in a responsible manner. Let's see how.

Employers' obligations in the event of a pandemic

Employers have numerous basic responsibilities, regardless of the circumstances-for example, to deliver promised goods to their customers, to pay suppliers for goods received, and to protect their employees' health. All of these are perhaps equally important, but only the latter directly involves human safety, and for that reason employers would be wise to consider it before the others.

Goldie Bassi, of law firm Gowlings LLP, notes that “Employers have duties under occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation to protect and promote workplace health and safety. Since pandemic influenza is a danger to employee health, duties of employers under OHS laws may be engaged in the event of such an occurrence, including the duty to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of an employee.”

This obligation includes informing workers of potential hazards, such as pandemic influenza and any steps that you have taken to deal with the risk.

But protecting employees' health can and should begin when there is no threat. In 2003, law firm Heenan Blaikie LLP issued general preventive guidelines on protecting employee health (specifically relating to SARS, but effective for other potential flu outbreaks), suggesting that employers:

  • Ensure that employees do not come to work when suffering from flu-like symptoms
  • Promote good hygiene practices in the workplace, and pay particular attention to ensuring that the work environment is clean (more on this below)
  • Ensure that engineering controls such as ventilation systems are appropriately maintained to reduce the spread of infectious agents
  • Distribute and instruct employees in the use of personal protective equipment as appropriate, primarily in health care facilities

Moreover, according to Cheryl Edwards of Heenan Blaikie, in the event of an outbreak, it is within employers' rights to ask an employee to undergo an examination to determine whether he or she is ill or fit for work, for example, if the employee shows symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, lack of appetite, coughing, sore throat, vomiting or diarrhea, or other circumstances, such as if the person has just returned from a location recognized as a source of the virus or if she or he has been taking care of a sick relative. However, it would be wise to have and apply consistently a written policy to deal with cases like these, in order to avoid facing accusations of discrimination and human rights complaints.

Specific instructions on flu prevention in the workplace

  • Inform your employees about the steps you are taking to prevent the spread of Human Swine Flu or other communicable diseases in your workplace. The better employees understand what you are doing the better they will be able to follow instructions and the calmer and more confident they will be.
  • Communicate to employees the importance of frequent hand-washing and of using material (e.g., a sleeve) or tissue to cover the mouth or nose when coughing or sneezing. Be sure to dispose of tissues in bins lined with plastic bags. Display hygiene and flu information in public rooms and distribute via email. Also, encourage employees to avoid touching their noses, mouths and eyes.
  • Stay informed on relevant information by accessing local health authorities' websites.
  • Encourage sick employees to stay home from work. It is a good idea to instil this behaviour in employees so that they adhere to it at all times. Managers should take the lead in this regard. Make sure that employees understand their entitlements in your sick-leave policy.
  • Keep work surfaces, telephones, computer equipment and other frequently touched surfaces and office equipment clean. Be sure that any cleaner used is safe and will not harm your employees or your office equipment.
  • At the same time, discourage your employees from using their co-workers' phones, desks, offices or other work tools and equipment.
  • Employees should avoid close contact with their co-workers and customers (maintain a separation of at least two metres). They should avoid shaking hands and always wash their hands after contact with others. Even if employees wear gloves, they should wash their hands upon removal of the gloves in case their hands became contaminated during the removal process. This may be facilitated by using email and teleconferencing.
  • Provide convenient access to health and safety facilities and equipment, such as washrooms or cleaning stations with soap and warm water, sanitary wipes, hand sanitizer, tissue paper and plastic garbage bags.

All of this should be codified in a pandemic preparedness plan in some form.

Planning for business continuity

After you have considered your employees' safety, obviously the next step is business continuity: keeping operations running as well as possible.

A good place to start is with a business continuity steering committee or coordinator that can determine what steps are necessary before a pandemic to ensure that your business can continue to operate. “Because so many of the issues involved in pandemic planning are people-centred, it's logical, and crucial, that HR takes a leading role in pandemic planning for business”, according to Colin Braithwaite, author of Pandemic Planning: A Guide for HR Professionals. In other words, your human resources team is well suited to take on this function. At the same time, it is important that all aspects of your business are represented on the committee.

If your business already has a preparedness plan, this team might be responsible for updating the plan with new information; if not, this team could be responsible for putting the plan together in the first place.

Once the team is in place, it can begin:

  • Identifying crucial employees, business processes and equipment that must continue to operate and forming a plan for their continuance. This will involve:

    • Determining the availability of backup suppliers to ensure the supply chain is not interrupted
    • Looking at succession planning for all levels of the organization to ensure that no crucial posts are left vacant

  • Developing backup strategies for serving customers when employees are absent from work; cross-training in jobs that must be done at the workplace, such as shipping
  • Developing a protocol to facilitate arrangements for employees to work from home or to stagger shifts to limit contact
  • Developing an emergency communication plan-a process for communicating critical messages and updates to employees
  • Informing employees of any travel protocols or restrictions that may be in place
  • Constructing a plan of action to take if you suspect an employee of having Human Swine Flu (or the relevant disease) when he or she is at work or has been in the workplace three to four days before the onset of symptoms

Other considerations include:

  • Distributing work to other facilities once an employee is infected
  • Keeping a database of workers with symptoms, confirmed cases and deaths
  • Selecting, distributing and training workers on personal protective equipment, if required

Of course there is much more that could go into a pandemic preparedness plan, and some of the above is probably inappropriate for some businesses. But it remains important for businesses, regardless of their size and scope, to have some sort of preparedness plan, so they can rest easy knowing that if the time comes, they will be ready. Besides, following these guidelines can only lead to a healthier workplace and better communication among employees and management, both of which are simply good business goals that can improve the bottom line.

First Reference and the Human Resources Professionals Association have published a white paper on pandemic planning, aimed specifically at human resources professionals. The guide, Pandemic Planning: A Guide for HR Professionals, 2009 Edition, is available for free to subscribers of The Human Resources Advisor and Human Resources PolicyPro, and also to anyone who takes a free trial of these products. Visit www.firstreference.com for more information.

In addition, every jurisdiction in Canada has pandemic guidelines and plans informing the public and businesses on how they intend to prepare, respond and recover. Several have added guidelines and plans for employers providing information on what they need to know to protect their workers. These plans and guidelines are posted on the HRinfodesk website in the Library under the respective jurisdiction, under the heading Health and Safety, and under the sub-heading Emergency Preparedness.