Although a global pandemic has not yet occurred, it is never too early to prepare. Businesses should prepare for the worst so that its employees, as well as the organization as a whole, will be as prepared as possible.
The Department of Homeland Defense defines a pandemic as the global spread of infectious disease. Even though there are more possible diseases or illnesses that could create a pandemic, the most talked about is that of the Avian Flu (H5N1). For this reason, it will be used as the example for creating a pandemic preparedness plan. The virus, originally found in birds, was transmitted to humans in Southeast Asia starting in 2003 and is responsible for 159 deaths since that time according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Should the disease spread to other parts of the world, the private sector could suffer greatly if ill-prepared.
Businesses play a part in the well-being of their employees and the global economy. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) offer guidelines to help businesses create an action plan for possible pandemics. For the CDC information and planning checklist, please go to: www.cdc.gov
Six different categories should be taken into consideration when a business drafts a pandemic action plan: impact on the business, impact on employees and/or customers, policies which should be implemented during pandemic, resources available to protect employees and customers, education and communication with employees, as well as coordination with external organizations to help the community at large.
The first step mentioned is to plan for the impact that a pandemic may have on your business. It is necessary to have an organized plan so that the organization and employees/customers will be protected as much as possible. It is important for a business to identify a pandemic coordinator and/or team that will have particular roles and responsibilities in the planning stages of the pandemic plan as well as during a possible outbreak. Whoever is chosen should then identify which areas of the business (ex: raw materials, suppliers, logistics and/or services) would be essential to maintain business operations during a time of pandemic and make sure that the pandemic preparedness plan covers what may happen to those resources in a pandemic situation.
Determining how the business may be affected financially should be another goal of the coordinator and/or team. It is suggested that different scenarios be examined to determine the affect that a pandemic may have on different facets of the business. If a company has overseas relations it is important to explore the affects this may cause on the remainder of the organization. International travel may become an obstacle if there are quarantines or border closures caused by pandemic. It is important to determine how resources will reach those isolated locations given the possible restrictions that may be imposed.
An emergency communications plan should be drafted, reviewed and revised often to account for any changes prior to the occurance of pandemic. Identifying key contacts, creating a chain of communication within the organization, including suppliers as well as customers and finding a way to track employee and business status are all important in this step. The plan should be drilled and exercised as well as updated to reflect any new findings.
The second step is to determine the impact of a pandemic on your employees and customers. Allow for employee absences should pandemic occur, and determine what will be done in case a high number of absences affect day to day business. The worst thing for a business would be to have infected individuals come to work and spread the disease to others. Family member illness, community quarantines, school/business closures and public transportation closures may also lead to absenteeism, and those issues need to be addressed. It may be a good idea to implement a work from home program for those who cannot come to work. This way the business can still thrive without spreading the disease throughout the workforce.
Making sure that large meetings are avoided as to not spread the infection is vital. This can mean that meetings are held via speakerphone or web cast so that participants are not in the same room. The office layout may need to be change so that people are not sharing workstations with each other. Face-to-face contact should be limited.
The evaluation of employee access to medical facilities and attention is crucial. A company may decide to bring medical facilities onsite so that employees have easier access to health care professionals. Vaccinations should be made available to employees for precautionary measures. Not only will it be important for the physical well-being of employees to be protected, but it also may be vital to have mental health and social professionals also onsite to help with emotional well-being. A pandemic can be very stressful on people and the appropriate resources should be available. Make sure that people with special needs are also included in the pandemic preparedness plan.
Thirdly, it is important to establish policies that will be followed by employees and/or customers during a possible pandemic. Some sort of compensation policy as well as a sick-leave absence policy needs to be discussed. In times of pandemic, employees need not be worried that they will lose their jobs if they are not able to make it to work. There should also be a policy in place that will determine when a worker who has been infected should be allowed to return to work. Also, if someone becomes ill on the worksite, policies should be put into place, such as immediate mandatory sick leave, so that the infected individual does not spread the virus.
Respiratory protection, cough etiquette and immediate exclusion of people with influenza symptoms should also be reiterated to employees. The importance of hand washing needs to be addressed. According to the CDC and OSHA guidelines, a person must wear at a minimum an N95, N99 or N100 respirator to be protected from flu-like symptoms. The most recent OSHA update states that surgical masks may be used in situations where N95s or the like are not available in emergency situations. Having appropriate personal protective equipment (respirators, gowns, etc.) on hand for employees should be a priority.
It may be a good idea to set up procedures for activation and termination of a companys response plan, shutting down facilities in affected areas and transferring that business to other key individuals who are in a different geographical area. The policy should allow for modification of the pandemic preparedness plan according to updates and new developments concerning the pandemic.
The fourth step is to have resources available to employees in case pandemic occurs. This ties into what was said previously about having respiratory and other personal protective equipment available onsite for employee use at no cost. It also involves enhancing communications systems and information technology infrastructure to accommodate telecommuting for employees. Medical consultation and advice for emergency response should also be available.
The fifth step, communication and education of employees, is vital throughout this process, even before pandemic occurs. Programs should cover basics about the virus (appropriate hand washing procedures, signs and symptoms of the virus) as well as general awareness of the companys pandemic preparedness policy. This will help alleviate any rumors or untruths about company policy or the virus in general. Information should also be made available to inform employees about possible at-home care of infected individuals including family members.
Dedicating a hotline and/or web site to constant update on the pandemic is also important. The site or hotline should focus on issues that will pertain to employees, suppliers, vendors and customers both externally and internally. Information should be updated as needed to provide those who need it with up-to-the-minute updates on the virus. Employees should also be told where to access community information for accurate pandemic information and resources for obtaining vaccines or antiviral medication.
The sixth and final step is to coordinate with external organizations to help the community should pandemic occur. In order to do so, businesses may want to work with insurers and health care providers to share pandemic preparedness plans and to get new ideas on how to fight the virus. It is also important to collaborate with local government officials so that, as a team, the community can combat pandemic. Sharing best practices with other businesses and listening to their ideas about pandemic is also useful. You may find that something in your pandemic preparedness plan works very well, and it may be something that could help other local businesses and organizations better their own plans.
It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to communicate with employees, government agencies and other organizations during a time of pandemic. Businesses should be able to count on each other to help out in time of need and the entire community can benefit from a business initiative to combat the possibility of virus.
Quick Tips #285: Proper Handwashing
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The content in this newsletter is intended for general information purposes only. This publication is not a substitute for review of the applicable government regulations and standards, and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific compliance questions should refer to the cited regulation or consult with an attorney.
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