With Swine Flu raising the current threat of a pandemic, many businesses large and small will be contemplating what to do if the worst should occur; what preparations are sensible; and what should staff be told. This is not simply a question of 'duty of care' but one of business survival as employees may simply not turn up for work unless they (and their families) feel safe.
The first step is to understand the terminology. An EPIDEMIC is a widespread and rapidly spreading disease. A PANDEMIC is simply a world-wide epidemic. Of contemporary concern is the prospect of an Influenza pandemic. Influenza is a contagious and potentially life threatening illness mainly spread by exhaled droplets and subsequent inhalation or touch. Influenza takes many forms and only Influenza Type A is known to have been responsible for a pandemic but there are many forms of the virus responsible, including the now well-known H5N1 'Bird Flu' and currrent H1N1 'Swine Flu'.
Ideally any business will have a Pandemic Plan but inevitably many will not, simply because of other work pressures - so what can be done immediately? Bear in mind that whilst looking after staff is simply good business, doing so is also a legal responsibility under OH&S legislation.
The first question to be asked is "does this business need to continue in a pandemic or can I have a temporary shut-down?" This is problematic because forecasts of a likely pandemic duration vary from weeks to many months and will in any event largely involve guesswork. Government intervention by way of border closures, quarantine etc together with the realities of staff absences may determine that in a full-blown situation so it may well be useful to focus on early stages and precautionary stages when staff may well be nervous and looking for both guidance and practical help.
Help your staff help themselves. Firstly advise of what to look out for: the usual symptoms of influenza - including pandemic influenza - are the sudden onset of a fever and one or more of the following - difficulty breathing; chills/shivering; muscle ache/pain; sore throat; dry cough; stuffy or runny nose; extreme tiredness. If that occurs then medical advice should be sought.
In terms of preventative measures, no approach is foolproof but the risk of acquiring influenza can be substantially reduced with the following measures.
- Regular hand washing - soap and water are good; antibacterial gels or wipes may be better.
- Keep regularly used surfaces and equipment [telephones, keyboards etc] clean. Supermarket disinfectants and/or antibacterial wipes should be fine.
- Social distancing - keep a metre and preferably two from others; avoid crowds.
- Wear a protective mask in public. This is not the Australian ethos but let staff know that masks really work but NOT whilst still in the box.
- Avoid touching nose, mouth or eyes
- Keep Flu shots up to date - at the very least this may reduce the severity of an illness.
So what can the business do itself? A key issue is whether to supply protective equipment from company funds and, if so, what and how much. A useful product guide can be found at www.galahad,net.au but suggested items are as follows.
- Face masks. Best are those certified P2, N95 or FFP2 (all roughly the same performance) or antiviral masks (eg Virogard). Beware cheap surgical style masks as they are useful in stopping the spread of virus from the already-infected but offer very limited protection to the wearer. A box of 10 per person is a useful start in a threat period but consider usage as these are nearly all disposable single-use items.
- Antibacterial wipes or gels. Wall-mounted gel dispensers are sensible for business as they are readily used but more controllable.
- Disposable gloves. Latex types are economic but consider vinyl for those that may have latex allergies. Nitrile gloves are better quality but more expensive.
- Goggles and coveralls may be warranted for staff involved in constant public contact, disinfecting/cleaning tasks etc.
Other considerations are reducing staff levels (rotating leave etc); home-based working, especially if computer-based work is involved; and minimising travel requirements and meetings. Implement a firm policy that ill staff shoudl stay home and, most importantly, communicate - keep the lines open both ways and let your staff know you care.