Businesses Should Heed Call – Protect Employees from H1N1 Flu Outbreak

Updated: January 01, 2012

The Pandemic Prevention Council announced that between April and June 2009, more than 1 million people are estimated to have become ill with H1N1 flu in the U.S. The virus could lead to as many as 90,000 deaths and hospitalize up to 1.8 million people in the U.S. this fall and winter. The second wave of the swine flu pandemic should be upon us in earnest soon. Fortunately, the virus remains similar in severity to regular flu, but it continues to mutate, and one-quarter of us could fall ill within the next few months.

In a survey that measured the readiness of workers, Angus Reid Strategies interviewed 1,028 employees and found that a large majority (84%) of American workers believe the recession creates more pressure to show up for work— even if they are feeling sick. What is so alarming, is that almost half (47%) of employees admitted that they would still continue with public activities like riding the bus or shopping even when they were infected. Even when required to stay home due to a company-imposed quarantine. More disturbing is that most workers have not had any direction from their employers about the upcoming flu season. (69%) say they have received no communication about policies in the workplace regarding H1N1, nor information related to hand washing or sick leave.

Employers Face the Critical Task of Educating Employees

Rob Ireland, partner at Mansfield Communications Inc (the firm who commissioned the survey) warns that "Employers need to clearly communicate with employees about such things as extended sick leave policy and procedures to minimize the spread of infection. During a pandemic, employers must become trusted sources of information and help employees make the right choices." He illuminated one of the poll's findings "nearly half of respondents said that they would continue to engage in public activities with full knowledge of their infection. Clearly, there is much to be done to educate America's workforce and help people act appropriately in order to contain the spread of H1N1."

Dr. Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health in Phoenix AZ recommends five things businesses and employers should understand.

1. H1N1 - It is a BIG Deal

Although the H1N1 flu is behaving much like the seasonal flu, it is disproportionately affecting young children and pregnant women.

2. A Pandemic Is Not Inevitable - Business Has a Role to Play.

If everyone does their part to slow the spread until the vaccine arrives, we can dramatically cut the amounts of illness and death. Short-term costs can prevent larger costs later. Allowing sick employees to stay home may be difficult, but not as costly as an outbreak among your employees. Employers should provide hand disinfectant to their staff and firm up sick-leave policies. They should work with employees on plans for when children are sick at home, and consider telecommuting policies where possible.

3. The Vaccine Will Pay For Itself.

Several studies have shown it is cost effective for businesses to bring vaccine providers to their work sites to vaccinate employees. And that's just for the regular seasonal flu, not to mention H1N1. If you have the opportunity to vaccinate your employees on the job site, it is well worth your while to do so.

4. The Vaccine Will Save Lives (and keep employees at work).

The H1N1 vaccine should start arriving by late October. The vaccine is rolling out in small amounts to those having the most severe complications from H1N1: pregnant women, health care workers, family members of children under 6 months, children 6 months and older, and those ages 24 to 65 with chronic health conditions. Employees who fall into these high-risk categories should be vaccinated as soon as it is available.

5. Stay Informed - Keep Employees Informed

Do your part in providing your employees the facts about vaccinations. One of those facts is that flu shots cannot give you the flu. The vaccine is a killed virus that cannot make you sick. It has been developed in the same manner as our seasonal flu vaccine, so there's no reason to expect any new problems with the vaccine against the H1N1 flu. Early indicators show it is a good way to protect us from this new strain.

Vulnerable Industries Take Precautions to Prevent Catastrophic Losses

Carol Wight, executive director of National Restaurant Association reminds members to be aware of how devastating an outbreak and panic could be on their business. Some countries, such as Argentina, saw drops in restaurant sales of 50% and 60 %. The U.S. Travel Association and the American Hotel & Lodging Association have also issued guides to prepare for an outbreak.

The AHLA advises hotels to assume that absenteeism will increase by at least 25% above normal and could be as high as 40%. It also points out that vendors and their employees may also fall ill, affecting deliveries of food, clean linens, cleaning supplies and trash removal. So far, there are no travel restrictions in place according to the World Health Organization. But hoteliers and tourism industries must also find a delicate balance between informing their employees and guests without discouraging travel.

Small and large employers are taking steps to fight back and prevent what has the potential for economic and life threatening devastation. Jean Bernstein, owner of the Flying Star Cafés, said the company has posters in all its stores to educate managers and employees about sanitation techniques for battling the virus and nearly half of its last employee newsletter was devoted to the topic. That included fact sheets on food; since many people still have the misconception that the swine flu can be spread by eating pork.

The Radisson is making sure it cross-trains more employees, so if many people are out sick, others can fill the jobs, such as the banquet staff shifting to the restaurant. Staff can access a number of programs for sales, catering and finance remotely via the Internet, in order to continue to be productive without sharing germs. They are being very flexible about letting people stay home if they have sick kids, and telling sick employees to stay home until 24 hours after a fever has broken, as well as making sure employees know where to get flu shots.

Management at the Sheraton Hotels says staff is giving door handles extra cleaning, particularly in public areas and meeting rooms. The front desk gets wiped down constantly and they have added hand sanitizers to amenity packages for their guests. Someone is making double sure all sinks have soap, and cleaning staff are focusing more on touch points in rooms, such as telephones, keyboards and other surfaces.

"Cleanliness is next to godliness".

John Wesley 1791

Sources: Mansfield Communications Inc, New Mexico Business Journal, Phoenix Business Journal

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