Pandemic: Plan but Don't Panic

Pandemic: Plan but Don't Panic

These days, televisions and newspapers are full of articles about the upcoming flu season, the Enterovirus and other threats (like the Ebola virus). How should employers react?

First, don’t panic.  Look at what policies your company has in place:  Do you have a sick leave policy in place?  Do you provide employees sick leave or paid time off?  Remind yourself and your employees of those policies.

Second, when there is a threat of contagious illness, consider another reminder to employees, this time about basic common sense – wash your hands frequently, cough into your hand or arm, and if you are sick, do not come to work!

Third, consider making available hand sanitizer gel or wipes.  These items can be placed in employee lounge or eating areas, any other common areas, next to the time-clock if you have one, and bathrooms.  Have your cleaning personnel do simple things as well, such as ensuring doorknobs are cleaned with a wipe, to help fight the spread of any contagious illness.  Definitely make sure bathrooms (including faucets) are cleaned daily.  

Fourth, provide information to your employees.  For good, reliable health information on a contagious illness, consider checking the Center for Disease Control’s website at http://www.cdc.gov.  Share information with your employees about the symptoms of the illness, how it is spread, and preventative measures to take (such as hand washing).

When and if there is a serious outbreak that shows real potential for hospitalization or even death, more stringent practices can be put into place, such as requiring employees who have been exposed to an illness to “telecommute” or otherwise stay away from work during any incubation period, limiting travel to areas that are considered “high risk,” requiring employees who have been exposed to take a test to determine if they have the illness before being allowed to return to work, sending home employees who show symptoms of the illness, or even shutting down all or part of an office or facility.  

Given the variety of circumstances an employer could face, give yourself the flexibility to address each situation on a case-by-case basis.  Planning, however, is important.  Consider a planning meeting to address what procedures you might follow during a pandemic or quarantine; here are some issues to address:

  • What policies do you already have in place that could impact your reaction to a pandemic or quarantine? 
  • What would you do if a large part of your workforce could not work due to illness?  Would your normal attendance policies need to be modified if employees could not work for extended periods of time?
  • How would you react to a closure of a school if several of your employees have school-aged children?
  • Which employees are critical to your business, and how would you replace them on a short-term basis?  Is cross-training a viable option?
  • How would management and staff communicate with each other during a pandemic or quarantine situation?
  • Should you consider limiting person-to-person contact within your facility?  Should these limits extend to vendors, customers and the public in general?  
  • On what occasions should you consider a partial or total shut-down of the facility?
  • Are there any extraordinary steps that should be taken regarding the cleanliness or safety of the facility?
  • What happens if an employee displays symptoms or becomes ill at work?
  • How can you ensure employees have access to health information and appropriate health care if needed during a pandemic or quarantine?
  • Are there local, state or federal agencies who can provide information or support during a pandemic or quarantine?

Planning and education -- not panic -- are the best ways to address pandemic illness issues in the workplace.