Flu threat warning to employers

by 06 May 2009

Australian employers should take Swine Flu precautions immediately, but at the same time they have been urged not to over-react to the outbreak.

Australian employers need to take steps now to limit the exposure of workers to swine flu, according to workplace relations and occupational health and safety experts.

As has been widely reported, the World Health Organisation has just raised its flu pandemic alert from four to five, signalling that a pandemic is imminent.

“As with SARS and Bird Flu, employers have a duty of care toward staff working in or travelling through areas where infections are reported,” said Michael Tooma, leader of Deacons’ OH&S practice. “From a safety perspective, they must review optional travel requirements and what risk-free alternatives such as videoconferencing are available, visits to high risk regions, and policies regarding return to work afterward to ensure they continue to provide a safe working environment

“In the 2003 SARS pandemic, we saw situations where staff did not want to continue to travel through high risk areas and where employees back home did not want to work in proximity with a colleague who had travelled to a high risk area and was exhibiting flu-like symptoms.”

From a workplace relations perspective, here at home global employers should prepare to manage concerns and queries from staff working in or travelling through areas where infections are reported, he maintained.

Research firm Gartner, however, has cautioned enterprises against overreacting to the outbreak, suggesting that they should take the event as a wake-up call and review and test their pandemic response plans.

“Business continuity management (BCM) and disaster recovery (DR) professionals and other stakeholders should use the widespread concern over swine flu as an opportunity to prevent their enterprises from becoming victims of uncertainty, panic, misinformation and a lack of preparedness to increase enterprise awareness of the potential business impact of a widespread outbreak of disease,” said Gartner principal research analyst, Richard De Lotto.

“Enterprises in all regions and across all industries should complete their review of BCM/DR response plans and fill in any missing elements as a matter of urgency. Starting today IT managers should meet with senior executives, line-of-business managers and other high level decision-makers to plan, test, and add capacity to ensure the sustainability of what is likely to be a predominantly work-at-home environment.”

It is estimated that a true pandemic could cause absenteeism rates of 40 per cent or higher for enterprises and their business partners and suppliers, resulting in severe operational disruptions. For this reason, it is imperative that they appreciate the urgent need to develop and implement pandemic response planning.

“In today’s global business environment, IT professionals must recognise and include extremely specific elements within their response plans that will overcome their organisation’s operational vulnerabilities which are not confined to the organisation’s specific geographic locations,” warned Gartner vice president and fellow, Ken McGee. “These vulnerabilities also exist in the next town, adjacent states, neighbouring countries, or even on the other side of the planet, where their suppliers, customers, external professional service providers and so on are located.”

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