Preparing for the H1N1 Flu

September 28, 2009

We have been hearing lot in the news about the H1N1 Flu, also called the Swine Flu. The World Health Organization has declared the global spread of H1N1 flu to be a "pandemic."

A pandemic is a contagious disease that occurs in a wide geographical area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. Already in the United States, there have been several deaths due to the H1N1 flu and some schools have been temporarily closed due to this flu. The worst pandemic occurred in 1918 when between 50 million and 100 million people died worldwide, including an estimated 500,000 in the United States. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in the United States, a 1957-58 pandemic killed 70,000, and a pandemic in 1968 killed 34,000. Hopefully, the H1N1 pandemic will not yield such devastating results, and the flu vaccine being prepared for H1N1 should help lower sickness and fatality rates. But will there be enough vaccine, and will the vaccine be available in time to stem the spread of this flu?

In addition to possible medical shortages, a severe pandemic could cause prolonged government service disruptions, a run on essential goods and services, and business shutdowns. The situation is complicated by what are normally considered to be good business practices such as just-in-time inventory procedures and labor staffing at minimal levels. The challenge for employers is to provide protection for their employees, while maintaining adequate staffing and continuing to maintain normal business operations.

Reducing the Risk of Exposure

Unlike the seasonal flu, which tends to be of greatest risk to the elderly, the very young, and people with existing medical conditions, everyone is at risk for the H1N1 flu even fit, working adults. H1N1 can be transmitted in the same way as are more common flu strains through any form of direct or indirect contact, including sneezes, coughs, or touching contaminated surfaces such as door knobs, keyboards, telephones, and desks. Here are some measures to be taken to reduce employees' risk of infection:

Sick persons should stay home

The CDC recommends that people with flu-like illness should stay home for at least 24 hours after their fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medicine). A fever is defined as having a temperature of 100 degrees or more. This guidance does not apply to health care settings where the exclusion period is 7 days from the onset of flu symptoms or until 24 hours after the resolution of symptoms, whichever is longer.

Sick employees at work should be asked to go home

Those employees who become ill with symptoms of the flu during the work day should be separated from other workers and asked to go home promptly.

Cover coughs and sneezes

Provide employee messages on the importance of covering coughs and sneezes with tissue. Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.

Improve hand hygiene

Instruct employees to wash their hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner, especially after coughing or sneezing. Ensure that adequate supplies of soap and hand cleaner are maintained in the workplace.

Clean surfaces likely to have frequent hand contact

Frequently clean commonly touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs.

Encourage employees to get vaccinated

Encourage your employees to get vaccinated for the "normal" seasonal influenza. Encourage your employees to also get vaccinated for the H1N1 flu when the vaccines are available to them. It is reported that the new vaccine for H1N1 should be available by mid-October.

Consider increasing "social distancing" in the workplace

If influenza severity increases this fall and winter, local public health officials may recommend that employers implement measures to increase the physical distance between people in the workplace. The goal should be for there to be at least 6 feet distance between people at most times. These precautionary measures may include avoiding crowded work settings, canceling face-to-face meetings, canceling non-essential travel, and using staggered shifts to allow fewer people to be in the workplace at the same time.

If it is feasible for your business and your computer systems will allow it, consider "telecommuting" as an option. This approach allows employees to work from their home, presumably reducing exposure to the flu virus.

Preparing for Labor Shortages

In a "worst case scenario," some have estimated that as much as 40 percent of the workforce in the U. S. could be away from work during the peak of the flu season. It is imperative that employers anticipate a high level of absenteeism and develop plans to continue business operations with as minimal impact as possible.

Plan ways for essential business functions to continue

Assess your essential functions and the reliance that others have on your services or products. Be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations. Cross-train personnel to perform critical functions so that the workplace is able to operate even if key employees are absent.

Prepare for the possibility of school dismissals or the temporary closure of child care programs

Be prepared to allow employees to stay home to care for their children if schools and child care centers are closed. It is not recommended that parents be allowed to bring their children to work while schools or child care facilities are closed. Encourage employees with children to anticipate these closures and to develop contingency plans for the care of their children.

Review Policies and Procedures

Managers need to know if current benefit plans adequately address the impact of the H1N1 pandemic and whether any changes are advisable.

Review time-off and sick leave policies

Some companies are relaxing attendance policies to allow for a health emergency during the pandemic, so sick days won't impact bonus or performance ratings. For example, how would your business respond if an employee has no vacation or sick leave left, and the employee has to stay home with a child with the flu? To encourage employees to stay home and prevent the spread of the flu, one company has added five days to each employee's bank of paid-time-off. The U. S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has urged American employers to waive requirements for doctor's notes, saying that it has the potential to overload the health care system that is already likely to be stressed.

Update employee contact information

Ensure that employees' emergency contact information is current.

Review capabilities for employees' support

Does your organization offer support to employees through an Employee Assistance Program, or are other resources available to assist employees in dealing with personal issues, including grief counseling?

Develop a Communication Plan

A solid communication strategy is critical to maintaining employees' confidence and productivity before, during, and after a pandemic. Employers will need to disseminate consistent guidance, convey leadership, avoid confusion, and reduce fear during a pandemic. A communication plan might include the following elements:

Meetings

Such meetings would be general education and discussion sessions about the flu pandemic (held prior to any outbreak of the flu in the workplace).

Written materials

Provide updates on the H1N1 pandemic and precautions to be taken at home and in the workplace.

E-information

Use the company Intranet site for education, progress reports, travel advisories, etc.

Conclusion

The H1N1 pandemic, no matter how severe, in time will pass. The good news is that the more an organization prepares for it, the better off you will be. Your organization's planning and preparation will have implemented important safeguards to protect your employees and keep your business viable, and you will have generated renewed confidence and loyalty from your workforce.

Should you have questions about preparing for the flu pandemic or need assistance in developing policies for dealing with the pandemic, you may contact SESCO at www.sescomgt.com or by phone at 423-764-4127. Click Here for a checklist of workplace readiness considerations for dealing with this pandemic.