Innoculating Your Business Against the Flu

Dec. 22, 2006
Could your business function if a third of your employees could not?

by Corrina Peterson

Every year, influenza (flu) infections cause high rates of illness and worker absenteeism, contributing to social and business disruptions. These disruptions could be temporary, but may be amplified in today's closely interdependent and fast-moving systems of trade and commerce. Is your company prepared to survive these disruptions?

Fortunately, there are ways to protect your employees and maintain productivity. The key is to plan ahead for the potential disruption of a flu outbreak using the same principles you use to plan for other business interruptions:

  • Consider all areas that could be affected by absenteeism.
  • Understand preventive measures, train employees and encourage them to use the preventive measures.

During your planning, don't be afraid to ask - and answer - some tough questions to get meaningful results.

What Is the Threat?

Historically, during annual flu epidemics, from 5 to 20 percent of the population has been affected with upper respiratory tract infections. Three times in the past century, the flu virus has changed genetically, resulting in global pandemics and large tolls of both disease and deaths. Recent data indicates that the world may be on the brink of another pandemic.

Because most people will have no immunity to the pandemic virus, rates of illness and worker absenteeism are expected to be much higher than during seasonal epidemics of normal influenza. In the United States, estimates indicate that the rates of illness will be between 15 to 35 percent of the population, and that worker absenteeism could reach 40 percent or more.

Tough question: Can your company maintain essential operations and services when:

  • Forty percent or more of your employees are out sick or choose to stay home to avoid exposure, and
  • Community outbreaks last 6 to 8 weeks and multiple waves strike in a calendar year?

How Could the Flu Affect Your Business?

Disruption caused by pandemic flu may be greatest when rates of absenteeism impair essential services, such as power, transportation and communications. To avoid negative impact on productivity at your company, carefully assess how it functions, both internally and externally, to determine which staff, materials, procedures and equipment are absolutely necessary to keep the business operating.

To avoid negative impact on productivity in a pandemic situation, it's important to plan for:

  • Internal staff shortages - Not only will workers call in because they are sick, they may be absent due to family member illness, community containment measures and quarantines, school and/or business closures or public transportation closures; and
  • Limited availability of external resources (transporters, suppliers, communications).

For internal operations:

  • Review and update your business process flow chart.
  • Identify critical operations and key personnel.
  • Create contingency procedures for critical operations and lines of succession for key personnel. (Remember, one-third of these people might not be at work.) Train alternates to perform key functions.
  • Consider how payroll, financial decision-making and accounting systems would continue to function in the absence of key personnel.
  • Establish procedures for management succession.

Tough question: For each person on your list of critical operations and key personnel, ask yourself: "What if this person can't come to work for an extended time? Is there someone else who can fill in?"

For external operations:

  • Identify suppliers, shippers, resources and other businesses that you interact with on a daily basis.
  • Develop professional relationships with more than one company to use in case your primary contractor can't service your needs.
  • Create a contact list for existing critical business contractors and others you plan to use as backups. Keep this list with other important documents.

Tough question: If employee absenteeism shuts down a key supplier of raw materials, service/product sub-contractor or logistics provider, could that be devastating to your business?

While it is important to plan for disruptions due to pandemic flu, disruptions from the more commonly occurring seasonal influenza also can be minimized.

Know Your Enemy

Seasonal flu is caused by a virus that attacks mainly the upper respiratory tract - the nose, throat and bronchi, and, rarely, the lungs.

The infection is characterized by the sudden onset of high fever, muscle aches, headache, severe malaise, non-productive cough, sore throat and stuffy nose. Most people recover within 1 to 2 weeks without requiring any medical treatment.

Flu viruses spread in respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing. They usually spread from person to person, though sometimes people become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.

Tough question: Are disinfecting cleaning solutions regularly used to clean work areas in your facility, including telephones, computer keyboards and mouse, desk tops, door handles and stair rails?

Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 days after becoming sick. That means that you can pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Disease spreads very quickly among the population, especially in crowded circumstances.

Now that you know how "the enemy" operates, you can use this knowledge to develop prevention policies and procedures.

Prevention: Flu Vaccines

The best way to prevent this illness is by getting a flu vaccination each fall. Among healthy adults, the vaccine is very effective (70 percent to 90 percent) in terms of reducing influenza morbidity. Influenza vaccination can reduce both health care costs and productivity losses associated with influenza illness.

To minimize impact on your business, encourage employees to get the flu vaccine. To increase participation, arrange for a local clinic to provide the vaccines onsite during regular work hours.

Tough question: Considering the potential impact of absenteeism, would it benefit your company to pay for employees' flu shots?

Prevention: Good Health Habits

Good health habits also are an important way to help prevent the flu. Your company policies and employee training program should emphasize the following healthy habits:

  • Avoid close contact. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  • Stay home when you are sick. If possible, stay home from work, school and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.
  • Cover your mouth and nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from contracting the virus.
  • Clean your hands. Washing your hands often will help protect you from viruses. Alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers also can help reduce the spread of germs.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs often are spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.

Tough question: Should you consider a policy to keep employees away from other people, including other employees, customers and the public, in order to prevent exposure?

Antiviral Agents?

For most people, influenza is an upper respiratory tract infection that lasts several days and requires symptomatic treatment only. Within days, the person's body will eliminate the virus. Antibiotics, such as penicillin, which are designed to kill bacteria, cannot attack the virus. Therefore, antibiotics have no role in treating influenza in otherwise healthy people, although they are used to treat complications.

Antiviral drugs for influenza are an important adjunct to influenza vaccine for the treatment and prevention of influenza. For several years, four antiviral drugs that act by preventing influenza virus replication have been available. When taken before infection or during early stage of the disease (within 2 days of illness onset), antivirals may help prevent infection. If infection already has taken hold, their early administration may reduce the duration of symptoms by 1 to 2 days.

Everyone Plays a Part

Make sure employees are aware of how the flu spreads and what they can do to help prevent widespread illness. Encourage them to stay home when they are ill. Consider establishing policies for flexible hours and telecommuting.

Some companies have attendance incentive programs that can inadvertently encourage employees to come to work when they really should stay at home. In light of the threat to business operations, take an honest look at your company attendance policies and consider whether they may be doing more harm than good.

Sidebar: Flu vs. Pandemic Flu

Seasonal flu and pandemic flu are not the same.

Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted from person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available. In the United States, deaths from seasonal flu average approximately 36,000 per year.

Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person. A pandemic may come and go in waves, each of which can last for 6 to 8 weeks. The number of deaths could be quite high. The death toll in the United States in the 1918 pandemic was approximately 675,000.

Sidebar: Resources

Many sources are available with detailed information about planning for pandemic flu, including:

Corrina Peterson is an editor for environmental and industrial markets with J.J. Keller & Associates Inc., Neenah, Wis., and a certified hazardous materials manager. She can be reached at [email protected].

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