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The Perfect Storm: Preparing for the Next Pandemic

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 11:09am
Ed Schlichtenmyer, Business Continuity and Quality Manager at ImpactWeather

It has been captivating movie-going audiences for years through such classics as 28 Days Later, Outbreak, I am Legend, and most recently, World War Z. Virus outbreaks, plagues and mass infections are just a few of Hollywood’s favorite antagonists to hit the big screen, however, what would happen if these hypothetical pandemics became a reality? Would the public be prepared? How would businesses survive or thrive without their workforce? The answers may be shocking.

Pandemics, which are global outbreaks, and epidemics, or regional outbreaks, have been around as long as the human species, and have obtained notoriety in history books and religious tomes alike. Though modern medicine has limited major occurrences, fast-spreading diseases are on the rise worldwide, including the Ebola virus in Africa, bubonic plague in China and chikungunya virus in the United States. Let’s not forget the all too common influenza virus, which pops up every year during the winter and spring months. 

The chances of spreading these diseases from one country to the next have increased, thanks to international travel and mass transit. To combat these threats, companies are now taking a serious look at how they can prepare against such outbreaks. 

How companies can place outbreaks above output 

According to Insurance Information Institute, 40 percent of businesses affected by a man-made or natural disaster never reopen. This is especially alarming since a majority of companies are not adequately prepared to handle a pandemic or epidemic based on a recent study by Saint Louis University. 

One of the main challenges companies face is their lack of knowledge and awareness when it comes to preventing the spread of diseases or germs. While some cultures encourage employees to stay at home when they are ill, others stress working through the day, placing output above outbreaks. This mindset causes companies to spend up to $10.4 billion in hospitalizations and outpatient visits when employees contract, and spread, such viruses as the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

An office environment isn’t the only way germs and diseases are spread. Supply chains are also susceptible to, and mainly responsible for, the spread of illness. When an outbreak occurs, companies must not only protect their employees and internal workforce, but they should also consider their vendors and supply chains to reduce the possibility of transferring bugs and subsequently increasing the chances of a nationwide or worldwide pandemic. 

Besides monitoring conditions externally, the most important part of restricting a pandemic or epidemic outbreak is observing employees’ health conditions. It’s especially important to advise sick employees to go home if there is a chance for a virus or bacterial infection to spread to colleagues or customers. According to the CDC, those workers who appear to be contagious should be separated from fellow colleagues, sent home and not return to work until at least 24 hours after they are fever free. Due to the small quarters of an office, it can be difficult to stop the spread of germs, which is why offices should take the time to install hand sanitizers throughout the office, remind staff to clean up their work areas and encourage employees to get vaccinated. A lack of good office hygiene not only creates high healthcare costs, but companies can suffer financially from a reduced workforce, diminished productivity and increased downtime.

Common pandemic misconceptions 

Many businesses believe that the only way germs are spread is through direct contact; however, that is not the case in most situations. Transmission routes, which are how a disease is passed, take a number of forms, including:

•Droplet contact – coughing or sneezing on another person

•Direct physical contact – touching an infected person

•Indirect contact – touching a contaminated surface or substance, such as a mosquito spreading chikungunya or a parasitic worm in undercooked food

•Airborne – microorganisms that can remain active in the air for long periods of time

•Fecal-oral – contaminated food or water sources 

According to a survey by Harvard’s School of Public Health, two-thirds of companies surveyed said they could not operate if more than half of their employees were out for two weeks or more. By implementing these phases into a business continuity plan, companies can reduce downtime, plug profit leaks and more importantly, safeguard personnel.

 

Curbing corporate pandemics and epidemics

Similar to a hurricane or tropical threat, the impacts of a pandemic, or an epidemic, can spread through the local community. Schools and government services may close. Retail stores and pharmacies will likely have a shortage of items such as medicine, gas, food and water. There may be a longer wait time at doctor’s offices, urgent care facilities and emergency rooms. To avoid this type of panic among employees, below are four simple steps that companies can apply to their business continuity plan. 

START – Confirmed cases are verified. 

•Communicate to key stakeholders – Stakeholders are employees, vendors, corporate executives and customers who will be affected by the company’s delays and/or shutdowns. Remind personnel of the preparedness steps the organization has in place, as well as what they should be doing to protect themselves from germs. 

•Inventory resources – Take stock in resources available, such as employees, sanitizing materials and what customers and vendors will require to continue operations. This is the time to review employees’ travel plans and determine who is available to help alleviate the extra workload. Remote computing capacities may be the answer to continue workflows. 

•Review response plans – Similar to other corporate response plans, a company should already have in place their crisis management team and have defined their roles in response to the event. 

ACCELERATE – Two or more cases are confirmed locally or near the office. 

•Continue open dialogue – Companies should maintain communication among stakeholders and initiate accountability with personnel. If additional employees become sick, companies should consider travel restrictions for all personnel. 

•Commence response strategies – Employers should encourage social distancing and distribution of appropriate office supplies and fuel. For example, if employees or family members are sick, the affected employee should stay home, maintain a three meter radius from fellow colleagues and wipe all surfaces at the beginning and end of a shift. 

•Evaluate operations – The crisis management team should determine whether to suspend, transfer or maintain operations. 

PEAK – Ten percent of the community is infected. 

•Continue communication and accountability with personnel – this includes daily messaging to personnel regarding the infection and spread of the disease. 

•Initiate distribution of operations – Continue social distancing and encourage employees to telecommute if more than 25 percent of schools in the area are closed. 

•Engage employee assistance program (EAP) – If an employer doesn’t already have an employee assistance program in place, now is the time to create a special plan to assist personnel with private concerns, including access to legal, medical, mental and other professional resources. During a peak pandemic attack, the EAP will serve as a hotline for those individuals who need additional resources and are unable to access the company directly. 

DECELERATE – Less than ten percent of the community is infected and the number continues to decline. 

•Continue messaging – Employees should be made aware of back-to-work policies. Communicate with both vendors and suppliers about the company’s plans to resume normal workflow. 

•Return to normal operations – Employers should encourage personnel to stay home if they are still ill; however, a company’s top priority should be to return to critical staffing levels. 

•Continue employee assistance program – Continue the EAP hotline to assist employees with any questions regarding how they will recover from an outbreak and provide the necessary help to their families. 

Companies can spend thousands of dollars or more to try to stop the spread of a pandemic or epidemic outbreak once it starts, but there is a simpler way to stop the incident before it starts. Attention to good hygiene is the best line of defense and the most cost effective for companies. Don’t wait until it’s too late - prepare your employees now before their coworkers begin coughing and sneezing. 

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