Amid warnings that employers who fail to protect their staff adequately from swine flu could face legal action, solicitor Rebecca Lake outlines what you need to know to prepare for and deal with swine flu in the workplace.
1. Prepare a contingency plan now
- Consider what your policy will be in relation to staff who do not want to attend work or travel for risk of contracting the virus, and ensure that you have clear guidelines to deal with employees who have flu-like symptoms or who may have been exposed to someone with the virus.
- Consider whether any precautionary absences will be paid or unpaid. Some employers are offering holiday or unpaid leave in these circumstances but consider to what extent you can accommodate these absences and whether your policy will need to be reviewed.
- Calculate the minimum numbers of employees required to run a division or department within the organisation.
- Compile a list of transferable skills of each staff and consider which staff could easily be retrained or redeployed in the event of absence.
- Identify key staff and consider what training could be offered to other workers in the event that staff levels are low.
- Identify sources from which you could recruit additional temporary staff if necessary.
2. Review and update your practices and policies
- Keep up-to-date with government guidance, adjusting your policies as necessary to take into account new advice. Stick to passing on government guidance only, do not be tempted to make up your own guidelines on how to deal with flu. Refer any employees with questions to NHS Direct or the National Pandemic Flu Service which has just opened – send the contact details round to all staff.
- Review relevant policies in relation to sickness, absence, dependant leave, flexible working and maternity and consider whether these need to be modified.
- Consider whether homeworking is possible or whether you need to implement travel bans, should the virus continue to spread. For example, remote access via broadband or satellite connections would enable employees to work from home. Make sure your IT department can deal with increased levels of home workers.
- Consider allowing employees to work more flexible hours to enable them to care for sick relatives or school closures without having to stop work completely.
- Remember that employees have the right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off work (unpaid) in order to deal with emergencies affecting their dependants and to make any necessary long-term arrangements – this could include dependants affected by swine flu.
3. Health and safety
- Consider what measures you can introduce in the workplace to help prevent or minimise the spread of flu.
- Review hygiene practices and improve these where possible. Consider the introduction of antiseptic wipes to keep all common work areas germ-free and antiseptic gels in washrooms and kitchens.
- Encourage handwashing, use of tissues, and cleanliness of communal areas by putting up signs for staff and visitors.
- Provide training to staff on hygiene issues and any new health and safety measures.
- Keep staff up-to-date with the latest government advice.
- Remind staff of sickness absence reporting procedures. Ensure there is a contingency plan in the event the person who normally monitors absence is themselves taken ill.
- Encourage employees to report to HR if they have flu-like symptoms or feel unwell and have travelled to Mexico or any other area considered high risk by the World Health Organisation.
- Communicate clearly your expectations regarding attendance and what employees should do if they fall ill.
5. Last but not least….stay calm and in control
- Show your employees that you are aware of the risks and have taken steps to deal with these. This should help to avoid panic absences.
Rebecca Lake is a solicitor specialising in employment law at Davenport Lyons
Watch our web TV show on how to prepare for swine flu in the workplace here.