On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to Phase 6 due to the spread of the H1N1 virus.  The virus, also known as Swine Flu, has rapidly established itself and will continue to persist in the coming months as the virus continues to move through susceptible populations.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released a guidance report which recommends actions that employers should take now to decrease the spread of seasonal flu and 2009 H1N1 flu in the workplace and to help maintain business continuity during the 2009-2010 flu season.  The document states that employers who have developed pandemic plans should revise their plans in light of the current 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak to take into account the extent and severity of disease in their community.  CDC anticipates that more communities may be affected than were in the spring/summer 2009, and/or more severely affected reflecting wider transmission and possibly greater impact.

Considerations of Appropriate Response Strategies:
Employers should expect to see a wide range of disease patterns across the country.  In terms of response strategies, employers with more than one business location are encouraged to provide local managers with the authority to take appropriate actions outlined in their business pandemic plan based on the condition in each locality.

Preparedness and Response Recommendations:
The research firm Gartner notes that a true pandemic could cause absenteeism rates of 40 percent or higher for enterprises and their business partners and suppliers, resulting in severe operational disruptions. The Federation of Small Businesses said firms employing three people should expect that their entire workforce could be off for 14 days this autumn, either due to infection or from school closures and transport problems.  With this said, business continuity planners should assess their essential business functions now to determine at what threshold of absenteeism those functions would be threatened if absenteeism escalates.  Planners can then prepare to take more aggressive measures to protect continuity as absenteeism escalates toward those thresholds.

Even employers in communities that have not yet felt effects from 2009 H1N1 influenza should plan for an influenza outbreak this fall and winter, and be ready to implement strategies to protect their workforce while ensuring continuity of operations.  Employers should be aware that other emergencies such as hurricanes or other natural disasters may happen during the fall and winter, creating additional challenging problems for businesses and communities.

Important Components of an Influenza Pandemic Plan:
Some of the key factors stated in the document are:

• Be prepared to implement multiple measures to protect workers and ensure business continuity.

• Explore whether you can establish policies and practices, such as flexible worksites and flexible work hours, when possible, to increased the physical distance among employees and between employees and other if local public health authorities recommend the use of social distancing strategies.  Ensure that you have information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple workers who may be able to work from home.

• Identify essential business functions, essential jobs or roles, and critical elements within your supply chains required to maintain business operations.  Plan for how your business will operate if there is increasing absenteeism or these supply chains are interrupted.

• Establish a process to communicate information to workers and business partners on your 2009 H1N1 influenza response plans and latest 2009 H1N1 influenza information.

A Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist is provided in order to identify important, specific activities businesses can do now to prepare for pandemic influenza.

Although having a plan for threat scenarios regarding data centers and other physical corporate facilities is important, swine flu has helped emphasize the necessity to plan for scenarios that threaten people as well.  Given the human stakes and the complexities involved in an actual pandemic, advance planning is critical to ensure a careful, thoughtful response.  Strengthening the overall readiness of a company’s workforce and response plan to remain productive during such an event is priceless.