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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Preparing for the H1N1 (Swine Flu) Pandemic

The World Health Organization declared swine flu a pandemic in June. Here we are in October, spurred to action by months of news reports, the impending availability of a vaccine and the realization that if we haven't done so yet, we'd better prepare.

Government officials estimate that up to 40% of the U.S. workforce will be affected by the H1N1 flu, also known as the swine flu. While this isn't suggesting that 4 out of every 10 of your employees will get the virus, the reality is that those employees - even if they don't get sick - may be the caregivers for family members who do.

Are you ready? Check our list below. We've got some helpful tips and resources to help you increase your readiness.

1. Change your sick leave policies so that workers who are ill are encouraged to stay home until they are well - without fear of impact to their job. This is a good time to review your absence and leave policies. Do they reflect your actual practice? Are they compliant with state and federal workplace laws such as state leave of absence or sick leave laws and FMLA? Update them, communicate them to all employees, and re-educate your managers.

Consider adding the following to your absenteeism policy:

"In the judgment of [name of company/organization], if an employee poses a risk to their own health or the health of other employees or customers based on a medical determination of a communicable illness, they will be asked to stay home and placed on sick leave or medical leave of absence until the threat has passed. If an employee disputes this determination, they must submit a statement from their attending health care provider that such risk does not exist. The company/organization reserves the right to seek a second opinion in that case. In carrying out this policy, the company/organization will comply with all applicable statutes and regulations protecting the privacy of personal medical information."

2. Encourage employees to get vaccinated for both seasonal influenza and H1N1, if it is appropriate for them according to CDC recommendations. (See Vaccines for the seasonal influenza can help prevent illness from influenza strains that may circulate at the same time as the 2009 H1N1 flu. Consider granting employees time off from work to get vaccinated for the H1N1 flu when the vaccine is available. Hospitals and clinics in many communities will be offering vaccines - some free of charge. Post information on these offerings in common areas to remind employees of the availability.

3. Educate employees about preventing the flu. Make sure that written or posted materials are in a format that is easy for all employees to understand. Make an extra effort to promote hygiene in the work environment. Provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants and disposable towels for employees to clean common surfaces. Increase the schedule for sanitizing surfaces that are frequently touched. This could include door handles, telephones, hand railings, tables, eating areas, and restrooms. Provide workers with up-to-date information on influenza risk factors, protective behaviors such as cough etiquette, avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth, and hand hygiene.

4. Instruct employees who are well (but who have an ill family member at home with the flu) that they can go to work as usual. If these employees become ill, they should notify their supervisor and stay home. Employees who have a certain underlying medical conditions or who are pregnant should call their health care provider right away if they become ill.

5. Be flexible where possible to allow employees to work from home to care for sick family members or care for children if schools close.

6. When possible, minimize face-to-face contact between employees. Consider the use of such strategies as extended use of e-mail, websites and teleconferences instead of face to face meetings and air travel. Encourage flexible work arrangements as a way to reduce the number of employees who must be at the work site at the same time or in one specific location.

7. If an employee does become sick while at work, have a separate room or area (away from other employees) available to them until they can go home. If the employee needs to go into a common area prior to leaving, he or she should cover coughs/sneezes with a tissue or wear a face mask if available. Ask the employee to go home as soon as possible. Employees should stay home from work until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.

8. Identify coverage options for critical business operations. Determine how your remaining staff will assume additional responsibilities while coworkers are out ill. Assess internal skills and identify outside staffing firms that can supply temporary talent if needed. Cross train employees for potential coverage needs.

Want more information? Check out the Business Planning section at

Then take a deep breath (with or without your face mask). Once you've done what you can to prepare, you've taken control as best you can. After all, you know what they say about an ounce of prevention.

Authored by Dave Waldorf

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