NSC 2016: When a Pandemic Strikes, Will You Be Prepared?

Oct. 18, 2016
What should companies do to protect its workers and the surrounding community from a pandemic? NIOSH's Lisa Delaney spoke to 2016 National Safety Congress attendees about emergency preparedness.
It's not a matter of 'if', but a matter of 'when'.

A pandemic could happen at any time, is unpredictable and could cause major disruptions to businesses and communities if transmission of the virus or illness cannot be contained.
Lisa Delaney, NIOSH associate director, emergency preparedness and response, spoke to 2016 National Safety Congress attendees about steps employers can take to protect their employees and the surrounding community from illness during a pandemic situation.
Since 2005, there have been multiple instances of Avian flu that had pandemic potential, but each time transmission was contained either before flu strains jumped from chicken to human or limited to a certain region. Each time, these Avian influenza strands had extremely high mortality rates which would be devastating to the global population.
“Ebola is a perfect example of how an infection or virus in one area of the world can transmit to the other side in days,” she said. “[A pandemic] may not hit your area at the same time, but it will with the same severity.”
This is why it is crucial to have an emergency preparedness plan when it comes to flu outbreaks, Delaney said.
“With some extra steps and planning we can be better prepared,” she said. “It’s not a matter of if but when a pandemic will occur. It is not like other threats. Little or no notice will be given.”
Delaney cited the 1918 pandemic and how NIOSH and the CDC still uses some measures that c. About 20 percent to 40 percent of the world’s population was affected by that influenza strand.
There are three areas employers should focus on when considering a plan should a pandemic occur: protecting employee health, keeping the business in operation and assuring function of the surrounding community.
Businesses have a key role in protection the health of employees and a community because of human interaction and potential effect on the local infrastructure, she said.
So, a company can involve its employees in emergency preparedness plans, align its actions to local measures and share plans with employees regarding policies, leave options, effect on pay and benefits if pandemic strikes. Once a plan is formed, employers should conduct exercises to test their preparedness plans and remain flexible in case a pandemic does occur.
Multiple measures can be taken in the event of an outbreak. Delaney compared them to the layering of Swiss cheese slices; there will be holes in different plans, but those holes will be covered up as more procedures are put in place to respond to a pandemic. 
Employers can help prevent flu or communicable disease transmission if they:
- Encourage vaccination.
- Send sick employees home.
- Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.
- Perform routine environmental cleaning.
- Increase social distancing or rotate hours during peak flu season to reduce transmission.
The most recent recommendations from the CDC and NIOSH have issued guidance regarding the spread of the Zika virus. Specifically, outdoor workers, healthcare and laboratory workers, mosquito control workers and business travelers have been targeted as being at the highest occupational risk of contracting Zika, which is transmitted by a mosquito bite.
 “Training, education and knowing what is happening in your communities is important to preventing both flu and Zika,” Delaney said.

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