I need some help with creating a plan for coping with a possible avian flu epidemic. My boss wants a concrete plan—she thinks our operations could be hit hard if the flu comes. A few issues back you gave us a website for avian flu information, which I’ve visited. But now, can you give some more detailed guidelines for getting ready? — Sally E., HR Manager in Santa Barbara
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Pandemic flu. It once seemed like a far-off scare, but today experts—and your boss—are talking about not if, but when. And they are right—it could be severe. For example, the 1918-1919 flu outbreak, the worst in the last 100 years, caused at least 675,000 deaths in the United States and up to 50 million deaths worldwide. These days, international air travel means that a new flu could span the world in a matter of days.
What should you do? Of course a great deal depends on your specific circumstances, facilities, activities, and so on. But there are general approaches that will help every organization.
The tips below are based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) materials along with suggestions from two experts, Dr. John Howard and Dr. W. Smith Chandler. Dr. Howard is the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Dr. Chandler is an occupational medicine physician with the Commonwealth Occupational Safety and Health Associates in Richmond, Virginia.
Think Through a Worst-Case Scenario
Pandemics can cause large surges in the numbers of people requiring medical treatment, temporarily overwhelming health services. High rates of worker absenteeism will also interrupt essential outside services, such as law enforcement, transportation, banks, government offices, phone companies, post offices, stores, and the operations of those you outsource to.
In your planning, contemplate worst-case assumptions, such as 30 percent of employees being out sick and most services restricted. What would you need to keep going?
To jumpstart your planning, visit www.pandemicflu.gov to get the CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHH) checklists that are appropriate for your situation and industry.
Inform Your Employees
Educate your employees about avian flu and how to prevent it. The following are practical tips from the CDC and DHH:
Wash hands often. Handwashing is one of the best preventive measures that your employees can take because the virus will likely be able to live on surfaces like doorknobs for about 2 days. For employees not near water, provide an alcohol-based (60 to 95 percent) hand sanitizer.
Stay at least 3 feet apart. Tell your employees to avoid close contact.
Don’t come to work sick. If your employees get the flu or feel achy and feverish, tell them to stay home. Send sick employees home. Don’t punish excessive absenteeism; you don’t want people trying to tough it out and infecting others.
Wear a mask. Provide employees with N95 face masks (a type of tight-fitting, high-filtration face mask that blocks airborne particles) if they have to come in contact with others who have or might have the avian flu. Stocking up on masks before you need them is a good idea.
Decontaminate work surfaces. The flu virus can live for 48 hours on a surface. Commercial disinfectants and bleach (dilutions as low as 1 part bleach to 10 parts water) can be used to kill the virus on a work-station. Be sure cleaning teams have good instructions and adequate supplies.
Also consider the following, should the virus start infiltrating your workplace:
- Arrange desks more than 3 feet apart.
- Conduct meetings by conference call.
- Encourage e-mail rather than face-to-face conversation.
- Turn off heating and/or air conditioning systems if possible.
Issues to Consider
You should take the following into account when putting your plan together:
Business travel. Employees who regularly travel to infected countries should probably not take those trips. Develop a plan for continuing business using conference calls, videophones, e-mail, and fax.
Business partnering for temporary employees. Consider an arrangement with an industry that won’t need workers during the epidemic—for example, resort employees if tourists stop traveling.
Child care. Schools may be closed to limit the flu’s spread. Parents will have to stay home to care for their children.
Caring for sick family members. Many employees will be absent to care for sick family members. Employees should not return to work until they are sure they have not contracted the flu.
Sick time discipline. Don’t fire people for absence during an epidemic. In your leave policy, consider including a clause such as:
“In the event of a pandemic (i.e., widespread outbreak of a communicable disease such as avian influenza), [Company Name] will grant additional unpaid leave to employees who are unable to work due to special circumstances related to the pandemic.”
Telecommuting. Transportation services, such as subways, buses, and trains, may be disrupted and your employees may not be able to get to work. Telecommuting solves the commuting problem and is a great way to keep employees from getting sick and still keep them working.
Start by creating a list of employees who can successfully perform the critical parts of their jobs remotely. Then think through connectivity issues. Will home computers suffice? Do employees have high-speed Internet access? Do they need special software? Can your servers handle increased telecommuting?
Make needed technical improvements and arrangements now. Also consider adding a provision in your company’s telecommuting policy that covers pandemics, such as:
“In the event of a pandemic (i.e., widespread outbreak of a communicable disease such as avian influenza), [Company Name] will make temporary telecommuting arrangements as it deems necessary under the special circumstances created by the pandemic (e.g., public transportation shutdown, employee exposed to disease).”
Finally, here are some general tips from the DHH for behavior during an epidemic:
- Avoid contact with live birds (including pets) and their feces, feathers, and pens if at all possible.
- Avoid poultry products from areas of infected birds.
- Cook poultry to well done before eating.
- Avoid cross contamination of other foods by using separate kitchen utensils and surfaces for raw poultry.
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after any poultry contact.
- Do not transport live or dead poultry even if there is no sign of disease.
- Wear gloves, a special N95 mask, goggles, and a disposable gown if you must be in contact with the birds/poultry or infected humans in enclosed environments.
- Stock up on necessary supplies. Encourage employees to store at least a one- to two-week supply of non-perishable food and fresh water and necessary medications. Individuals with special diets and allergies will need particular attention, as will babies, toddlers, and elderly people.
The bottom line is that being well prepared is the best way to help your organization and your employees weather a pandemic outbreak. — CELA Editors