Will you be ready? Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

As the recent outbreak of H1N1 has once again shown, the threat of a disease-related crisis to your business is real. If not properly handled, disease in the workplace can cause serious and expensive consequences, including high levels of absenteeism, loss of productivity, business interruption and increased liability claims. And if not well managed, the situation can also lead to significant risk to your business’s reputation.

“Many stakeholders are beginning to question existing crisis preparedness in their organizations and are finding it difficult to provide the levels of reassurance expected,” says Mary Walkenhorst, health care practice leader at Aon Risk Services.

Smart Business spoke with Walkenhorst about the questions you should be asking to ensure that your organization is prepared to cope with a pandemic or another crisis of similar size and scope.

What does a business need to consider in a pandemic?

To limit the spread of the infection, medical and government authorities are likely to temporarily close schools, nonessential public services and places where large numbers of people gather, such as public transportation hubs. In that case, your organization needs to consider the impact, especially in relation to increased absenteeism, that this would have on normal operations.

Much of the impact during a pandemic will be from absence from work. Some of those absent will have the virus, while others will be unavailable as they provide care for family members or look after children who are not in school. You have to make sure that you include these ‘additional’ absences on top of expected infection rates in your planning.

In addition, an increasing number of telecommuters will help reduce the number of employees who need to travel to and from work and reduce the chances of workers contracting the virus. Establish a work-at-home policy and make the technical infrastructure available. Also, cross-training for critical jobs will allow staff to fill in for absent co-workers. Identifying critical functions, determining necessary skills and planning for training will help you achieve this.

Is an existing business continuity plan enough to deal with a potential pandemic?

Existing business continuity plans are likely to focus on an interruption following a loss of use or damage to physical assets. A pandemic-induced interruption is different because, although physical infrastructure is intact, human capital is affected. Have you considered the adequacy of existing plans to cope with a pandemic? For example, are plans in place to ensure that all response and recovery teams can replace team leaders and members if they are unavailable?

Many organizations have invested in the development and implementation of business continuity planning. However, only a minority have subjected these plans to testing and given the nominated recovery teams the opportunity for a dress rehearsal. You need to subject your existing business continuity plan arrangements to rigorous testing using a pandemic-based scenario, then use the results to refine the plan.

For example, existing processes for facilities management may prove insufficient in a pandemic. You need to identify where existing processes need to be improved and address increased cleansing, increased use of disinfectants and other cleaning products, washing of uniforms, increased inspection, and the shutting down of air conditioning and climate control systems to minimize spread throughout facilities.

A pandemic will necessitate a series of temporary measures to ensure critical business functions are maintained. Consider making arrangements for segregating teams, providing dedicated transport and staff accommodation near the workplace and ensuring access to health care for staff.

Government and health authority understanding and knowledge of pandemic flu is continually evolving. You need to create a process to gather expert advice and up-to-date information from local health authorities, government and other relevant specialists to assist in formulating your plans and identifying individuals at the greatest risk.

How can a business address security during a pandemic?

Public services that are taken for granted will be stretched, and their availability should not be assumed. This could have wide-ranging implications for law and order, and security arrangements should be reviewed to ensure they are adequate.

Make sure your organization reviews its security protocols and makes the necessary arrangements to fill potential gaps if emergency services are unable to respond.

How can a business ensure its supply chain?

There will be widespread disruption to the normal shipping and receiving of goods and services necessary to sustain business. In addition, travel restrictions will limit the movement of people. You need to establish alternative supply and delivery chains and consider the potential impact if transport restrictions are implemented.

Most organizations heavily rely on suppliers for key services and may outsource entire functions to specialist partners. Given the heavy reliance on third parties, review their contingency plans to make sure they are adequate for a pandemic.

How important is communication in the midst of a pandemic?

Even in advance of a pandemic, fear, anxiety and rumor will affect work force behavior. When the pandemic actually hits, this situation will worsen, and providing timely and accurate information will prove critical.

Before that happens, you need to develop and implement an effective communication plan so that staff can be updated as the situation develops.

Mary Walkenhorst is the health care practice leader at Aon Risk Services. Reach her at (314) 854-0702 or mary_walkenhorst@ars.aon.com.