In 2002 and into 2003, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) silently made its way into Toronto. Within weeks of seeing the first case, Toronto-area hospitals and healthcare providers were dealing with a full-blown pandemic. In the months following the outbreak, negative pressure rooms, used to treat the illness, would all be filled, with sick patients left waiting for treatment. As the number of ill grew, and the nature of the rapid-spreading illness became better understood, the Ontario government had no choice but to declare a state of provincial emergency in March 2003. Under the Emergency Management Act, the government had the power to direct and control local governments and facilities to ensure that necessary care could be provided. In all, Canada saw a reported 448 SARS cases, 44 of which were fatal.
Learning from SARS
The vignette above drives home how quickly and unexpectedly a pandemic can occur. The SARS pandemic was declared to be over by the World Health Organization (WHO) in July of 2003. There were many people responsible for stopping the spread of SARS. However, the SARS crisis also drove home the need for better pandemic planning at all levels.
While WHO, the government, and various other official agencies look after pandemic planning in the wake of SARS at a control stand-point for the general population, what about pandemic planning for organizations? Consider the following:
- In the wake of a pandemic, the government may issue orders for workers to stay home
- A pandemic may affect your bottom line, especially if you’re in the service industry
- Employers are obligated to keep workers safe during outbreaks
- Organizations may need to alter sick-leave policies in the event of an outbreak
Because pandemics involve many unknowns, it is essential that organizations try to plan for what they can control. The nature of the illness is unpredictable; however, your organization’s response doesn’t have to be.
Preparing for a pandemic is important because it ensures the survival of your business and the health of your workforce. When it comes to pandemic planning, consider the old adage: it is better to have a plan, and never use it than to have no plan when one is needed. Pandemic planning is the kind of plan you hope to never use. But, nevertheless, in wake of various new strains of influenzas and many new superbugs, a pandemic plan has become an essential piece in your organization’s health and safety program and emergency response plan.
What is a Business Continuity Plan?
A pandemic plan is a more specific type of business continuity plan. Business continuity plans can be created for all types of disasters, such as a natural weather phenomenon, or man-made events such as major chemical spills or acts of violence. A pandemic plan is just one of the several business continuity plans your company might create.
Business continuity planning involves the following:
- Defining potential risks
- Assessing how risks will affect operations
- Putting in place safeguards and procedures to mitigate risks
- Revising as needed
Pandemic plans need to account for the impact on the business. If many people are ill or infirm, they cannot patronize your establishment. As was the case with SARS, if WHO implements a travel ban to your area, the decrease in people in the area may impact your business. For instance, businesses in Toronto were said to be impacted by the travel ban by several million dollars in lost revenue.
Business continuity plans ensure that your business has a plan in place to continue to operate during and after a pandemic. Sure, it may need to be altered slightly depending on the nature of the pandemic, but planning for all possible scenarios will ensure that your business can withstand a minor or major pandemic emergency.
What Happens When Workers are Ill?
In your business continuity plan, consider what will happen if your workforce becomes ill. How would your business operate if 50% of the workforce couldn’t work? What if even greater numbers are sick, for weeks or even months? Your business continuity plan needs to have a contingency plan in place for this pandemic reality. Perhaps your business can outsource some of the work. Or, maybe your production line drops a shift or runs on a skeleton crew. Scheduled shutdowns could be part of the continuity plan. What matters more than the execution is that there are safe options for continued service even during a pandemic.
Pandemic planning may also involve altering existing sick leave policies. For example, some organizations eliminate the maximum number of sick days workers can take in a year in the wake of a pandemic. This encourages sick workers to stay home and stop the spread of disease. It also takes into consideration that a pandemic is more than an average cold, so workers who contract illnesses may need additional time to recover. Sometimes workers who feel better are still capable of spreading the illness. So, workers who have recovered from illnesses should be cleared by medical professionals before returning to work. Your organization should have a policy that accounts for all of these possibilities.
What Happens When Workers are at Risk of Getting Ill?
Employers are obligated to take reasonable precautions to ensure worker safety. This includes keeping them safe from exposure during a pandemic. Of course, the best thing to do is to plan to follow WHO recommendations. If WHO is recommending people stay home, then organizations should instruct workers to stay home. Even if WHO doesn’t recommend workers stay home, employers may want to encourage any workers who have the ability to work remotely do so. This will reduce the risk of contact for healthy workers.
For workers who serve the public, work in healthcare, work with vulnerable people, or provide essential services, there is always a risk of catching a bug from a member of the public. If WHO doesn’t put guidelines in place for staying home or avoiding contact, they will make official safety recommendations, such as:
- Frequent handwashing
- The use of masks
- Avoiding certain areas unless absolutely necessary
- Reducing the number of visitors allowed in hospitals
- Being vaccinated if one is available
Employers can help keep employees safe by ensuring that they follow WHO recommendations. As well, employers can provide masks and hand sanitizers for patrons to use in order to reduce the risk to workers.
Pandemic Planning: A Plan you Hope you Never Need
Pandemic planning is like insurance: you invest in it, but you hope you never have to use it. Pandemic planning considers unlikely scenarios. Yet, if your organization finds itself facing a pandemic without a plan in place, they may not be ready. As a result, the organization may not be left standing on the other side of the pandemic. Of course, pandemics are serious, and there are sometimes fatalities. It is unpleasant to think about. But, companies need to consider how a pandemic would impact the bottom line, and put a plan in place.
Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator
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