Nearly two years ago HRI reported, “As business issues go, the dangers posed by global pandemics are barely on the radar screen.” Since then, things have changed. Earlier this year, President Bush established the “International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza,” greatly raising the profile of pandemics and the global threat they represent.
By now, most business leaders are aware that a strain of bird flu, or avian influenza, has raged through the poultry populations in large swaths of Asia. So far, about 60 people have died as the flu has jumped from birds to humans, but experts are concerned that the virus could mutate to become easily transmissible from human to human. Because people would have little natural resistance to such a newly generated flu, there’s a danger that a global pandemic could kill millions, even while wreaking havoc on the global economy (Yeoh, 2005).
If an avian flu or some other type of fast-moving infectious agent were to strike, it would almost certainly bring international travel to a halt very quickly. Just last April, President Bush issued an executive order that allows for the isolation of international visitors who may be carrying the flu. But stopping international travel would be just the beginning of economic dislocations, notes Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“As great as they would be,” writes Garrett (2005), “the economic consequences of travel restrictions, quarantines, and medical care would be well outstripped by productivity losses. In a typical flu season, productivity costs are ten times greater than all other flu-related costs combined. The decline in productivity is usually due directly to worker illness and absenteeism. During a pandemic, productivity losses would be even more disproportionate because entire workplaces – schools, theaters, and public facilities – would be shut down to limit human-to-human spread of the virus.”
No one can accurately forecast the human or economic costs of a pandemic or similar crisis, such as a bioterrorist attack. There are just too many unknown variables. How virulent would it be? Will there be significant supplies of vaccine or antiviral drugs by the time it strikes, and how effective will they be? How quickly will it spread, and how prepared are the healthcare infrastructures?
Governments around the world are just beginning to prepare for a major pandemic. So far, only about 30 countries have national plans. As for business organizations, so far there’s been little information about how they’re preparing for such an event. There are, however, some guidelines from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and some basic information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The OSHA guidelines (2005) focus particularly on workers who are most likely to be first affected by an avian flu outbreak, such as animal handlers, laboratory workers, medical workers, food handlers and airline flight crews. An article in IOMA’s Safety Director’s Report notes that employers should stay aware of and follow OSHA recommendations for protecting workers and should develop policies about how to cope with such diseases (“How to Prepare,” 2004). These policies should include contact information that, in an emergency, workers can use to find out “what they should do and whether they should report to work.”
Communication in general will be key during a fast-moving pandemic or similar crisis. Companies should have systems that allow them to quickly reach workers, especially those who are traveling. There should also be emergency resource lists readily available, and companies should be ready and able to keep workers abreast of what’s happening with any disease outbreaks. Workers should know, for example, about what symptoms to watch out for and what they should do if someone becomes ill.
IOMA’s Safety Director’s Report also recommends, “Ensure that employment contracts and collective agreements permit the level of workplace flexibility you need to operate effectively during an outbreak. Companies need to retain a level of control that will allow them to issue directives in an emergency.”
During any kind of flu outbreak, hygiene should be emphasized. The CDC (2005) recommends, among other things, that workers thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water for at least 15 to 20 seconds, stay at home if they’re ill, avoid close contact with anyone who may be sick, and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
If a crisis should strike, employers will need to be prepared to carry out critical functions with smaller staffs, or perhaps even with a staff working from remote locations. Employees who are ill will need to stay out of the workplace, and in a true pandemic situation, some might be reluctant to come into the workplace even if they’re not ill.
If a pandemic or other related event occurs, all companies will share certain problems, but each will also be up against specific challenges. The more effectively companies can foresee and prepare for those challenges, the better they may be able to cope with a future crisis.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Preventing the Flu: Businesses and the Workplace.” June 10, 2005.
Garrett, Laurie. “The Next Pandemic?” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2005.
“How to Prepare Now for the Next Disease Outbreak.” IOMA’s Safety Director's Report. ProQuest. July 2004.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Guidance for Protecting Workers Against Avian Flu.” Retrieved October 12, 2005.
“Viruses, Pandemics and the Global Workforce.” TrendWatcher, December 5, 2003.
Yeoh, En-Lai. “Economic Fallout from Bird Flu a Concern.” ABC News [Associated Press]. October 12, 2005.