Recently, health officials have declared a public health emergency over the steadily increasing number of Americans affected by Swine Influenza. This declaration, and the intensive media coverage that followed, has sparked nationwide concern as the government and its various health agencies hasten to contain the outbreak. While Swine Influenza has yet to be declared a pandemic, the prospect that it could become more widespread raises an important question: Does your business have sufficient mechanisms in place to deal with a public health emergency or other disaster?
Businesses play a significant role in protecting employees’ health and ensuring employees’ safety in the event of a pandemic or other crisis. Therefore, strategic planning before such a crisis arises is critical. Employers should take time now to educate themselves about available resources in an effort to minimize an emergency’s impact and, in the case of a pandemic, to reduce the spread of disease. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have formulated guidelines to help employers plan for a pandemic and other comparable disasters. These guidelines, along with comprehensive checklists for employers, are compiled on the CDC’s “Workplace Planning” webpage. The United States Chamber of Commerce has similarly developed a list of issues employers should consider now given the potential for a Swine Influenza pandemic. The following is a sample of the Chamber of Commerce’s many suggestions:
• Confirm that existing business continuity contingency plans address long-term absenteeism rates. Check whether core business activities can be sustained over several weeks on a decreased workforce.
• Identify your business’ essential functions, including accounting, payroll, and information technology, and the individuals who perform them. Cross-train employees to perform essential functions to ensure resiliency.
• Determine which outside activities are critical to maintaining operations, and develop alternatives in the event they cannot function normally.
• Update sick leave and FMLA policies. Communicate with employees about the importance of staying away from the workplace if they become ill.
Additionally, each state maintains a website designed to provide pandemic flu information. The website for Florida can be found at: http://www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/states/florida.html. Communication is critical to any business’ emergency preparedness plan. Employers should ensure that their websites provide current information in the event of an emergency. Employers also should establish emergency communications plans, which provide not only key contacts, but also make clear to employees the processes for communicating emergency status and actions. In short, employers should provide clear information about the company’s preparedness to all employees, and to do that, early education and preparation are essential.