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Avian flu: An HR issue?


Dr Cook, UK medical director of International SOS, explains the issues for employers given the avian flu risk.

Now that the A/H5N1 avian flu has become a reality in the United Kingdom, the need for businesses to put Pandemic Preparedness Plans in place is brought into sharp focus.

Pandemics are not a new phenomenon and the current risk of human infection is low, but the impact on employee health and safety and business continuity if a pandemic does occur is significant. It calls for British business and the HR community to create company-specific plans and policies.

Existing employment policies may need to be re-examined and modified to meet the situation if a pandemic develops. Specific points that would need to be considered include:

  • How will we reduce flu transmission in the workplace?
  • How will we identify infected people and what policies do we have regarding attendance, isolation, etc?
  • How will we manage a member of staff becoming ill at work particularly if the healthcare system is overwhelmed?
  • How will we maintain a safe working environment if critical staff members are absent?
  • What methods of stress management will help staff cope with personal and family illness and potential deaths amongst friends and family members?
  • How will we handle overseas staff and travellers?

From current experience with companies we have found that, although many organisations agree that the impact on their business and staff during a pandemic would be significant, they need support to help them know where to start and what policies to put in place.

Although the UK’s national plans rank favourably in our analysis of countries’ preparedness worldwide, for companies with global operations and a large number of business travellers, there is a clearly a greater need to develop bespoke policies and processes.

Even so, nationally based businesses should be aware of the processes for implementing employee screening and grouping at the various locations, employee education, basic hygiene and infection control, sourcing and distributing of Personal Protective Equipment and antiviral medication in the different offices amongst others.

In the aftermath of a pandemic, two important questions will be directed at senior management and the board of directors:

  • Could the possibility of such an occurrence be foreseen, and were reasonable precautions taken?
  • Was the company prepared to respond with proper protective actions for its staff?

Prudent companies will be able to respond to these questions positively and demonstrate that suitable Pandemic Preparedness Plans had been put in place.

Dr Cook is UK Medical Director of International SOS, which has had a team of medical experts tracking the spread of Avian Flu A/H5N1, and researching the developing body of knowledge, since January 2004. It has also developed Pandemic Preparedness Plans and training for some of the world’s leading companies.

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