Swine flu may catch employers on the trot

by HCA11 May 2009

A swine flu pandemic could have serious OHS and business continuity implications for businesses, and those that are unprepared will be hardest hit, Zoe Lyon writes

With the world potentially on the brink of a swine flu pandemic, employers should be seriously considering their occupational health and safety (OHS) responsibilities and the potential business continuity implications for their organisations.

According to insurance broker and strategic risk adviser Marsh, many organ isations believe that at the peak of a swine flu (now known as Influenza A H1N1) pandemic up to 75 per cent of their work force could be absent from work. Clearly, the OHS and business continuity impli cations for businesses – particularly in industries which do not commonly encounter OHS-related incidents – could be very significant.

Employer obligations

Harmers Workplace Lawyers managing partner Joydeep Hor says that the swine flu outbreak highlights the need for employers to constantly be on top of their legal obligations – which arise under OHS legislation nationally – regarding the health and safety of their employees.

“I guess there’s always a tendency to focus on a particular crisis or epidemic, particularly when there’s a linkage to Aus tralia, and absolutely that’s important. But the obligations that employers have [now] are no different to what their obli gations always are when it comes to ensuring the health, welfare and safety of their employees,” he says.

According to Hor, these obligations usually come under the spotlight in more hands on industries such as mining or manufacturing where serious physical injuries or fatalities can occur, but he emphasised that employers should be aware that the law is not limited to these sorts of cases.

“For example, in this context I would imagine a potential breach of an OHS law would be if an employer had infor mation to suggest that an employee had been exposed to swine flu and they con tinued to allow that person to work and interact with other people at work, and therefore exposed those other people to a risk to their safety,” he explains.

Deacons partner Michael Tooma agrees that employers in industries where OHS issues are less prevalent should ensure they know where they stand.

“Some employers might not appreciate that the duty of care they currently have to their employees and non-employees in their workplace extends not only to phys ical risks such as persons being exposed to physical injury, but also to exposure to dis eases and illnesses,” he says.

“In the current context of the swine flu concern, that would mean employers have a proactive duty to take reasonable steps to make sure their employees are not exposed to the risk of contamination from swine flu from their work activities and the conduct of the business activities of the company.”

Taking precautions

Tooma points to a number of practical measures business can adopt to help pro tect employees, such as restricting over seas travel, requiring those who return from overseas to be cleared before return ing to work, and taking steps in relation to personal hygiene and workplace cleanliness. “[It’s important] to make sure that the easy steps that are available to employers are in fact taken now, well before things escalate,” he says.

Tooma believes that at least some businesses are responding appropriately and taking proactive steps to manage their OHS responsibilities and minimise the flu’s impact on business con tinuity, having learned the lessons from previous health scares.

“A number of our clients have quite extensive policies in place dealing with the possibility of a pandemic and an appropriate response they would take in relation to that. Those policies have, in some cases, been prepared in response to earlier threats – SARS in 2003, and more recently bird flu – but some have been devel oped or adapted in response to this latest concern,” he says.

However a client briefing released by Marsh notes that while many firms have procedures in place to deal with emergencies, those plans may not adequately cover a situation involving communicable diseases affecting employees and the general population on a wide scale. And even those companies which now have comprehensive pandemic plans in place may not have had the opportunity to fully develop, let alone test, those plans.

Hor advises employers to appoint a person within the organ isation to monitor the situation and stay abreast of the partic ular risk factors arising in the locations in which the organisation operates. He says keeping the lines of communication open with employees is also important.

“They have to be doing something in the first instance, but also communicate [to employees] what it is they are doing,” he says. “And if people feel that there are issues of concern to them or they have suspicions about people who may have been exposed, there need to be mechanisms internally for that to be raised,” he says.

A balanced approach

However, he also cautions organisations to carefully consider how they go about implementing such policies to avoid unnec essary panic: “You don’t want it to be a free-for-all which just generates hysteria within your organisation.”

Richard De Lotto, analyst at research firm Gartner, agrees that companies need to be pragmatic about the potential seri ousness of a pandemic – but shouldn’t overreact.

“Enterprises, government and regulatory agencies should not make panic-driven moves – for example, closing down operations – in response to possibly overblown media reports,” he warns.

“[However], enterprises in all regions and across all indus tries should review their business continuity management and disaster recovery response plans. Senior executives, line-of- business managers and other high-level decision-makers should be aware of the seriousness of pandemic preparation to ensure a broad, ongoing commitment to this effort.”

Top tips for managing swine flu

Review company travel policies, hygiene and medical screening policies and policies on anti-virals and healthcare support, including providing anti-bacterial sanitiser, masks and other materials

Identify possible social-distancing and other means to minimise exposure and the spread of illness within the workplace

Review methods for providing ongoing information about both the pandemic threat and the status of the business to employees at work and at home

In population centres, make sure plans allow for staff to work from home where possible and appropriate

Consider if there are any vital processes that must be maintained for the normal location or a centre location in a pandemic, for example, call centres, health services, and services vital to the vulnerable

Review the structure that will be necessary to manage the crisis effectively. This includes how to implement multiple business continuity plans, cope with any significant increase in the number of employees working from home and substantial changes to the marketplace and the supply chain

Ensure crisis management and business continuity management plans include pandemic scenarios and exercise the plans where possible.

Source: Insurance broker and risk adviser Marsh


Most Read