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By The American Society of Safety Engineers
Published in the March 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Whether the cause is H1N1 flu or another potential pandemic illness, facility managers (fms) need to prepare for—and be aware of—a possible worst case scenario. This is particularly true when faced with the prospect of more than 25% to 30% of their workforce absent due to illness (or symptoms of illness), yet still having to run and supervise the main functions of their facility.
In the past, flu pandemics occurred about three to four times each century when new flu viruses or subtypes emerged. One of the worst flu pandemics occurred from 1918 to 1919, causing an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide.
Such high numbers of infected and dead affected not only the general public but also businesses. Hospitals were faced with too many patients, running well over capacity, and other industries did not have the time or the resources to deal with the spread of disease and the high incidence of death.
Planning For Pandemics
Fast forward to today and once again, pandemic flu is a concern for the public, government, and fms. Just a few years ago the concern was avian flu or H1N5; this time it’s H1N1, or what has been commonly referred to as swine flu. So, how do fms plan for a possible pandemic and the problems associated with high employee absenteeism that can accompany an outbreak?
There are several disease prevention recommendations and workplace trends resources available to businesses to help ensure that facilities run smoothly and workers stay safe in case of a pandemic flu outbreak. One way for fms to know how to plan is to read through recommendations on flu prevention for businesses from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Health Organization. All three offer best practices and suggestions on how to prepare businesses, facilities, and the workforce for a possible pandemic flu outbreak.
These additional resources can provide professionals with additional strategies.
• U.S. Government’s Pandemic Flu Web Site for Schools.
• Cal/OSHA offers this report, “Guidance for Employers and Employees Regarding Recent Swine Flu Cases” along with links to other public health recommendations for occupational exposures to swine flu.
• NIH offers a comprehensive resource for health professionals on Federal Response, International Resources, Genetic Sequence Information, PubMed Searches, and Veterinary Resources.
• The Society for Human Resource Management has a page that provides professionals with access to a collection of up to date resources on this subject, along with a community for the exchange of ideas and experiences associated with this issue.
• MedlinePlus provides information for the general public, patients, family members, and caregivers. There is also a Spanish language version of this site available at Gripe porcina-MedlinePlus.
• The American Academy of Pediatrics has a Web site that covers medical facts about the disease along with prevention tips on how to combat the spread of H1N1 in the workplace and in workplaces with children.
• University of California Berkeley.
• University of Maryland (link for additional resources).
Rathey is president of Boise, ID-based InstructionLink/JanTrain, Inc.
In the event of a disease outbreak, but also as sound business practices for times when pandemics are not present, the key for fms is to develop and implement workplace guidelines that:
- Prevent the spread of disease;
- Keep healthy employees safe at work; and
- Ensure there is a policy in place that can handle high employee absenteeism—keeping facilities running and sustaining core business activities.
Specific Safety Measures
One of the main focus areas for fms should be the prevention of the spread of disease within their facilities. There are several safety measures that can be taken, including:
- Making sure there is adequate air circulation in the facility.
- Posting tips on how to stop the spread of germs at work in prominent places within the facility where all employees have access (such as lunchrooms or restrooms).
- Ensuring that all employees wash their hands regularly and cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing.
- Keeping hand sanitizer readily available throughout the facility for employees, visitors, and others to use frequently.
- Informing employees about pandemic flu, the spread of disease, as well as steps the facility is taking to prepare for any possible outbreaks.
Keeping The Workforce Healthy
Also, it is essential for fms to ensure that healthy workers stay safe at work. This can be done by:
- Developing policies that enable employees to work from home, such as creating appropriate security and network access to files, telephones, and other telecommuting features (when applicable).
- Encouraging sick workers to stay home.
- Making sure sick leave, medical leave, and family leave policies are updated and in place. Fear of lost wages is one of the main reasons workers come to work when they are ill.
If the situation does occur where there is a high level of employee absenteeism from illness in the workplace, fms need to plan ahead to ensure facilities continue to run smoothly and business is not interrupted. The following suggestions can help ensure the continuation of business.
- Consider the possibility of—and plan for—possible interruptions to government and essential services such as sanitation, power, water, and even food supply. Fms should ensure that their facilities are capable of withstanding any interruptions of this level by having items (such as backup power generators) in place.
- Designate an “in case of an emergency” point person and identify the facility’s essential functions as well as the individuals who perform those functions.
- Ensure there are enough staff members trained in different areas so work can continue on schedule if there are many employees absent from work.
- Offer or expand online and self-service choices for customers, business partners, and others.
Overall, fms need to prepare ahead of time in case of any emergency, especially in situations that involve high employee absenteeism from pandemic flu or other widespread disease.
Disease prevention is essential to keeping a facility running at full capacity. Fms must take steps to make sure staff members know about disease prevention and what the facility has in place to deal with pandemic outbreaks.
To help, there are many free government resources and recommendations available to fms to assist them in the creation of a prevention plan. [See accompanying sidebar for links.] Measures need to be put in place ahead of any disease outbreaks so business is not interrupted, facility services are not compromised, workers stay safe and healthy, and disease is not spread further both to workers and the public.
Founded in 1911, the Des Plaines, IL-based ASSE is the largest and oldest professional safety organization. Its more than 32,000 occupational safety, health, and environmental professional members lead, manage, supervise, research, and consult on safety, health, transportation, and environmental issues in all industries.