Preventive measures Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

When it comes to planning for a
pandemic or medical emergency of any proportion, most employers take a passive approach, according to a Business Pulse survey. But the health of employees during an outbreak like the H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, is important to a company’s continued operations.

While President Obama assured the public the H1N1 influenza is not a cause for alarm but rather a “heightened state of alert,” companies should implement preventive strategies now and in the future. While the spread of H1N1 appears to be subsiding and its impact less severe than feared, it is important to remember the flu that reached epidemic proportions in 1918 started with a mild version in the spring of that year and returned with a vengeance in the winter. Much has changed since that time, but risks remain.

Smart Business spoke to Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., president and CEO of MemorialCare Medical Centers, to learn how employers can be better prepared with preventive measures.

Where should employers start?

Plan today for the impact a pandemic may have on your business, employers and customers. Identify a project leader and bring together a team to develop coordinated and effective policies, procedures and response plans to ensure information is secured and distributed. Include issues related to operations, health and safety, cleanliness, sickness, absences, benefits and other activities appropriate to your business. Business operations that require close contact with fellow employees and the public face special considerations in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Some firms that developed policies during the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2008 Asian flu can review those contingency plans and update any gaps that may occur should larger numbers of employees become affected.

What are some ‘best practices’ implemented by other companies?

Many organizations have communicable disease policies in place that outline the importance of avoiding close contact with infected individuals, staying home if you have the flu or telecommuting to prevent the spread of disease in the workplace.
Employee training should cover the importance of covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, continual hand washing and ensuring germ-free work spaces. Some companies make available infection control supplies like alcohol-based hand hygiene cleaners, tissues and waste bins throughout the workplace. And share best practices with employers in your communities, chambers of commerce and business associations to improve prevention and response efforts.

How can we best communicate to our work force?

Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise companies to develop and distribute programs and materials covering pandemic fundamentals (e.g., signs and symptoms of influenza, methods of transmission), personal and family protection and response strategies (e.g., hand hygiene, coughing and sneezing etiquette, contingency plans) through multiple methods of employee communications. They also suggest anticipating employee fear and anxiety, dispelling rumors and misinformation and planning communications accordingly. Other activ-ities include disseminating information about your pandemic preparedness and response plan and advice on at-home care of ill employees and family members, while ensuring communications are culturally and linguistically appropriate.

How can health care organizations help?

The government advises employers to collaborate with local health providers like MemorialCare Medical Centers as well as insurers, public health departments and health plans to share their pandemic plans and understand their capabilities. Ask federal, state, county and city public health departments and agencies and emergency responders to participate in your planning efforts and understand how each group’s plans and capabilities contributes to your business and the community’s efforts.

What other resources are available?

Several government agencies have guidelines and checklists to assist employers in planning for a pandemic outbreak and comparable catastrophes. The Web site pandemicflu.gov offers access to the federal government’s flu information and includes the ‘Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist’ compiled by the DHS and CDC. The CDC site, cdc.gov/business, provides additional helpful information. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has informational documents and advice, such as a 47-page guide, that can be accessed at osha.gov. The guide discusses differences between the various types of flu and helps distinguish between pandemic influenza and other types. It sets out possible effects of a pandemic on business and provides clear guidance on handling the fallout from a pandemic.

There is no better time than the present to be prepared. If you don’t already have a plan in place, there are numerous local and national resources outlined here that are readily available for protecting your employees’ health and safety.

BARRY ARBUCKLE, Ph.D., is president and CEO of MemorialCare Medical Centers (www.memorialcare.org) and past chair of the California Hospital Association. Reach him at arbuckle@memorialcare.org or (562) 933-9708. MemorialCare Medical Centers include Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Anaheim Memorial Medical Center, Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in San Clemente.