Swine flu and the workplace
With a new wave of swine flu (H1N1) predicted to hit by mid-October 2009, the Public Health Agency of Canada in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments have launched a new website FightFlu.ca at www.fightflu.ca. It is a one-stop access to online information and resources about H1N1 flu virus. In addition, the agency has awarded a contract worth $926,600 under the Pandemic Preparedness Response Fund to the International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) to develop tools and strategies that small and medium sized businesses can use to take action to ensure they recognize and deal with the challenges brought on by the virus, and develop plans to deal with increased employee absenteeism and disruptions in their operations.
However, there have been many sceptics’ about whether or not it is going to impact our population, and to what degree. The reality is that across the world it is presently impacting 20-50% of populations, and many deaths are occurring.
Depending on the severity of the flu outbreak, all of us acknowledge that trying to balance various interests will be difficult for businesses, especially when determining how to: prevent transmission among employees; protect people who are at increased risk of influenza related complications from getting infected with influenza; maintain business operations, and minimize adverse effects on our suppliers and customers.
What should you be doing at this point?
- Create policies and procedures that address workplace illnesses – be clear that if people are sick, they should stay home; tell them how they should request time off
- Address sanitary practices – because influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing, it is important to take precautions by asking employees to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when they cough or sneeze. Also purchase containers of hand sanitizer and tissue paper and instruct employees to use them regularly
- Establish methods of communication “phone/email”
- Address issues such as potential school closings and parental leave; as well as compassionate care leave to take care of a sick family member
- Consider the concern – if we really do have a certain percentage of our workforce ill or taking care of family members, what will your business do to have continuity? Outline a plan to address this issue such as remote work locations, working from home arrangements and VPN connections.
The jury is still out on whether the swine flu outbreak will become a widespread pandemic. However, it’s not too soon for employers to start preparing to prevent influenza spread at work and consider what to do if the illness reaches pandemic status.
This pandemic discussion has been going on for quite some time on different blogs and other resources, but several studies and research papers indicate that businesses are still not prepared. First Reference has several HR publications to help you plan for a possible pandemic and answer questions about employer and worker responsibilities, rights, and solutions when dealing with H1N1 influenza in the workplace at http://www.firstreference.com
What is your workplace doing, and if nothing why?
Employment Law Managing Editor