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Why Swine Flu H1N1 Should Matter to Employers

Swine Flu H1N1 Prevention Steps for the Workplace

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Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe, disease-free workplace for employees. Consequently, you need to take proactive steps to prevent the potential spread of any contagious disease, including Swine Flu H1N1, in your workplace. Employers also need to address business continuity in the event that a Swine Flu H1N1 outbreak affects the ability of your employees to come to work.

Even if current speculation about the spread of swine flu (Influenza A virus, H1N1) in pandemic proportions proves wrong, a workplace plan for employee health and safety and business continuity, in the event of any disaster or contagious disease, makes good business sense.

Swine Flu: What Makes Swine Flu a Concern to Employers?

Swine flu (Influenza A virus, H1N1) is the latest contagious disease predicted to potentially reach pandemic status. Swine flu differs from normal seasonal influenza, to which many employees have developed some immunity. Because vaccine is available to combat expected annual flu strains, some employees have obtained flu shots to prevent contagion.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the United States Department of Labor, describes the difference between seasonal flu and a potentially pandemic flu: "pandemic influenza refers to a worldwide outbreak of influenza among people when a new strain of the virus emerges that has the ability to infect humans and to spread from person to person. During the early phases of an influenza pandemic, people might not have any natural immunity to the new strain; so the disease would spread rapidly among the population."

A vaccine is not currently available for swine flu H1N1, and might not be available for many months following the onset of the disease. This is partially why workplaces need to prepare for a potentially devastating impact should swine flu H1N1 reach pandemic proportions.

OSHA predicts the following potential impacts on the workplace.
  • Absenteeism and Swine Flu: A pandemic flu outbreak could affect as much as 40% of your workforce during periods of peak swine flu infection. You may experience severe absenteeism. Employees may be absent because they are sick or because they must care for sick family members.

    Schools and daycare centers may close so parents will need to tend their children in the home. Even if daycare centers remain open when schools are closed, daycare centers will not accept potentially infected children from closed schools.

    Some employees may be afraid to come to work for fear of catching the swine flu H1N1, especially employees with weaker immune systems who easily become sick. Sadly, in a worst case scenario, some employees and their family members could die.

    You need a plan for how you will deal with the serious increases in absenteeism you will experience during any contagious disease outbreak.

  • Presenteeism and Swine Flu: Employees come in to work sick. “We all know what it feels like to have the flu – you’re not operating at 100 percent, you may not even be operating at 50 percent,” said CCH Employment Law Analyst Brett Gorovsky, JD. “The bottom line for most organizations is that it’s in everyone’s best interest for sick workers to simply stay away, even in normal times.”

    “Employers need to discourage both the ‘hero employee’ – and even more so, the ‘hero boss’ – who try to muddle their way through the day when they shouldn’t,” said Gorovsky. “Employees are sensitive to the differences between what management says and what it means, and when they see their supervisors coming in sick, they’re convinced that’s what’s expected of them also.”

    How an employer deals with a sick employee who is showing signs of illness in the workplace is tricky. Technically, you can ask the employee to leave work and not return without a fitness for duty note from a physician. This option is apt to create unhappy employees, potential lawsuits, and charges of discrimination if not handled appropriately and similarly across your workplace. Consult an attorney as to the appropriate steps to follow. Consider publishing a policy about what sick employees can expect from the employer if they come to work with symptoms of contagious illness.

  • Potential Commerce Disruption and Swine Flu: Both your customers and your suppliers may also be experiencing the affects of swine flu H1N1 infection. Just as your ability to produce your product or service will be affected, so will theirs. You may experience reduced sales and revenue and an inability to ship or receive supplies and parts in a timely manner. At the same time, you will have fewer employees on your end to deal with any of these issues.

In 2007, the CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey revealed that only 27% of companies reported that they had a plan in place in the event that a large percentage of employees become ill. This was almost a 100-percent increase over 2006, when only 14% of companies surveyed had such plans, however, it still represented just over one in four organizations. This is shortsighted in the event of a pandemic.

Want to know the swine flu prevention steps for employers and employees? Here are steps for preventing the spread of swine flu.

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