COVID-19: The Coronavirus 2019
How to Make a Business Pandemic Plan
Is Your Company Ready?
What if your business suddenly experienced a forty to seventy percent reduction in labor? Add to that, severe logistic disruptions and diminished critical supplies. And then, assume these conditions were sustained for weeks or possibly months. Could your company still operate?
The above scenario is very similar to the predictions of how a moderate to severe infectious disease epidemic or pandemic could impact the workforce and affected communities. Although the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (or COVID-19) has not dramatically infiltrated the US yet, public health officials tell us that its spread is “inevitable.”
Most Businesses Are Unprepared for Ongoing Crisis
If your business is similar to most US employers, it is likely to be quite unprepared for such a catastrophe, particularly an ongoing crisis. This is not surprising. Statistically, American businesses aren’t ready for more common disruptions, such as fire, severe weather, and prolonged IT failures.
A 2012 study, conducted by Travelers Insurance, found an alarming forty-eight percent of the business owners surveyed, lacked formal continuity planning, which is essential to prevent threats, as well as ensure ongoing operations before and during disaster recovery.
Yet, health authorities are saying we must be vigilant and ready. And with the continuing global spread of the COVID-19, employers must consider these and other organizational impacts and create plans to continue essential operations in the event of a severe pandemic or a regional epidemic.
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It is definitely not alarmism to prepare. Employers play essential leadership roles in their communities and in readying the workforce and protecting employees from other types of disasters. A pandemic is no exception. But depending on the complexity of your organizational structure, planning may not be a simple task, which means time is of the essence.
To delay could be devastating for the longevity of your business, and adversely impact its employees, the local community and your customers.
Preparation is a good business practice.
Impacts of Outbreaks, Epidemics & Pandemics
To understand the potential business effects, employers should be familiar with common definitions that pertain to the spread of infectious disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), defines an epidemic as, “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” Outbreaks are comparable but more limited in geography.
Pandemics are similar to epidemics but have spread to several countries or continents, typically infecting a large number of people. Pandemics tend to last much longer than seasonal flu events. And that duration makes a pandemic significantly different from other disasters.
OSHA states, “A pandemic will also be an extended event, with multiple waves of outbreaks in the same geographic area; each outbreak could last from 6 to 8 weeks. Waves of outbreaks may occur over a year or more.”
Although less widespread, epidemics and outbreaks in your area can still cause serious staffing and supply shortages, as well as transportation delays. Wuhan China, where the COVID-19 began, is evidence of how a severe outbreak can paralyze a large metropolitan area, the healthcare system, and its businesses.
What Written Plans Does Your Business Need?
Through consulting, I am exposed to more than one hundred diverse private sector businesses every year. Commonly, I encounter clients who have insufficient written emergency procedures that lack vital elements or are untested and full of inadequacies in employee awareness, or incorrect strategies.
And even if a viable written emergency plan does exist, many employers assume an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) alone is sufficient if a disaster occurs. But an EAP only covers aspects of the emergency cycle.
In emergency management, there are five phases of strategies that help organizations experience and recover from a disaster. Those phases are preparedness, prevention, response, recovery, and mitigation. A pandemic or epidemic can require a sustained response in your community, which may impact your business in all five phases of the emergency management cycle.
Required for most businesses under regulations established by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the EAP focuses on response during and immediately after an emergency, including methods to maintain the safety of workers, as well as critical equipment shutdowns, evacuations and shelter actions. It is indeed a vital part of protecting your employees.
If you’re not subject to OSHA’s EAP regulations, an emergency action plan is still recommended to help your company respond during various phases of an active event. What if public first responders are overwhelmed with calls related to COVID-19 in the community and fire or chemical spill occurs at your company? How will your employees respond? Are your workers trained to respond to medical emergencies on the job? An EAP and subsequent training can help your company function well during a sudden emergency.
However, an EAP does not detail how to reestablish operations if they are ceased or halted. Nor does it describe how to continue essential business systems from remote locations. And it does not list vendors, supply chains, logistics or key personnel needed to sustain or resume business in the wake of a disaster or an ongoing crisis.
It is possible each of those phases of disaster response might need to be addressed.
That is why every company — large and small — also needs a Business Continuity Plan (BCP), which does address each of those areas — in particular recovery and mitigation. Apply that with the companion document, the Emergency Action Plan, and you are in the best shape for all phases of disaster response, mitigation, and recovery.
Incorporate Pandemic Procedures in Your BCP
In 2009, I wrote a series of articles about H1N1 influenza, a new virus that had emerged that spring. Those pieces and subsequent interviews with epidemiologists on the topic increased my awareness.
As a safety and health management consultant, it was easy to envision the disruption a severe pandemic could do to the workplaces I frequented. Most were significantly ill-equipped for such an event. No small wonder, because pandemics do occur, but historically only a few times a century. We are not prepared because we aren’t familiar with the process.
While writing those articles for a publisher, I was simultaneously assisting several of my enterprise clients in creating or augmenting business continuity plans (BCPs). The recession had hit only two years prior. Companies that had survived were especially keen on continuity procedures to prevent or minimize further economic damages.
When I suggested incorporating infectious disease response procedures in those BCPs, the initial reaction was often a raised eyebrow. “Do we really need that?” After I explained the impacts a pandemic could cause, every stakeholder agreed. Infectious disease preparedness was merited. I implemented those procedures for all my clients, and we trained their employees.
Several years later, some of those same clients apply the procedures to minimize transmission during seasonal flu outbreaks and respond to high flu-related absenteeism. Professionally, I can tell you that these procedures do help businesses function while protecting employees and the community.
Workplace Infectious disease preparedness involves addressing or implementing several aspects, which cover physical controls, vaccinations, policymaking and procedures, communication, financial, employee education, and training.
Physical Controls & Modifying the Environment
- Assess and minimize employee exposure to the general public. For example, can sales, accounting, engineering, IT or customer service be performed remotely, versus in person?
- What areas of the building allow the public to gain entry? Can those be changed to prevent access?
- Post signage and prevent nonessential persons from visiting the company.
- Provide supplies to fight infectious illness spread. Accumulate infection control supplies such as hand sanitizer, bleach, soap, tissues, gloves, no-touch trash cans, masks and cleaning supplies.
- Modify the work environment for additional protection to workers and customers. Physical barriers, (such as clear plastic sneeze guards), or drive-through service windows may be applicable. Use high-efficiency air filters or increase ventilation rates in your HVAC system.
- Place hand sanitizer stations throughout the facility.
- Offer NIOSH approved N-95 masks to employees that must work in close contact with the public (within 6 feet) or who might be exposed to ill employees (such as providing first aid to coworkers), especially when high volumes of infectious disease are present in the community. (Note: Supplies of N-95 respirators are currently scarce and must be first given to healthcare providers. This information from the CDC may assist in understanding the issues.) But certainly, allow workers who bring these or surgical masks to work to wear them on the job if at all possible. Some employees might be immune-compromised and need additional protection.
- Review business transactions that may require customers to hand over credit cards or cash to your employees. Can this be eliminated or reduced, such as paying through a cash app or online?
- Limit social interactions. Once an infectious disease is circulating in the community, it is not the time for a retirement party for your staff member or a company picnic. Put those on hold until the infectious illness has passed.
- Increase the disinfection of high contact areas, such as countertops, doorknobs, computers, credit card machines, employee breakrooms, and restrooms.
At present, a vaccine trial for COVID-19 is in the early stages, however, it may be a lengthy process before this is available to the public. Experts predict there may be a typical influenza season and a COVID-19 season. Therefore, it is entirely possible to have employees exposed to both infectious disease conditions.
Employers may not be able to vaccinate against COVID-19, but they might help offset seasonal flu and its complications. Offer seasonal flu vaccines to employees and explain the benefits.
Consult with a medical professional about pneumonia vaccines to offer to workers. These may have some benefit to prevent respiratory infection complications related to COVID-19 and seasonal flu.
Policies & Procedures
- Create a leave policy that does not penalize employees with influenza symptoms. The policy should also cover time away for those workers needing leave to care for ailing family members or performing childcare if schools are closed.
- Some populations are especially prone to serious complications of COVID-19, including elderly persons (60+) and those who are immune-compromised, such as workers who are undergoing chemotherapy (or have newly completed treatment) and those with chronic illnesses like Crohn’s Disease. Allow these workers the ability to take necessary leave at no penalty as well and have your policy reflect this matter.
- Require workers who are sick to notify the company periodically of their condition and ability to return to work. However, review the manner those notifications will be given. If forty percent of the workforce is out sick, there can be a tremendous amount of calls from workers. Consider accepting email notifications or dedicate a special voicemail line for sick workers.
- Determine the core functions your business needs to maintain essential operations. Examine financial, production, office, IT, marketing, operations, and legal areas of your business and list the duties for each that must be performed to continue or resume operations if a shutdown due to disease outbreak occurs.
- Develop a plan to triage workers who may remain to operate essential functions.
- Apply telecommute policies to allow as many employees as possible to work from home.
- Cross-train employees who maintain essential operations to ensure continuity if a key worker is sick. OSHA recommends training three or more employees for vital tasks.
- Develop and maintain written instructions for employees on company procedures, vendor and customer information and emergency numbers.
- Work with vendors to ensure supply chains have a backup if regular suppliers cannot meet demands.
- Discourage the sharing of computers, work surfaces, desks, and phones.
Address issues pertaining to worst-case absenteeism. Is there a point you may elect to temporarily shut the business down? Such as, if forty to sixty percent of the workforce were infected or taking leave, would you be able to temporarily cease operations and run essential business functions remotely or with a minimal staff?
Allowing all (or most) employees to stay home for a short duration might cause a lessening of illness transmission on the job. Schools often do this when there is a seasonal flu spreading in the community. There may be a benefit to your organization to apply this tactic as well. Determine and write a “worst-case” absenteeism protocol.
Education & Training
- Educate workers on the current infectious disease circulating in the population. Combat fear-mongering and incorrect information by providing facts on the disease, and ways to prevent transmission to your employees.
- Teach hand hygiene (handwashing) to workers and require workers to wash hands often. This is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Studies show that respiratory illnesses can be reduced by at least sixteen percent if hand hygiene is properly done.
- Post signs requiring employees to wash hands in restrooms and near sinks.
- Train your employees in infection control methods such as bloodborne pathogens, universal precautions and cough etiquette, (coughing in the crook of the arm).
- Explain social distancing (maintaining six feet of space from others) to workers, as this can also help minimize the spread of infectious illness.
- Encourage employees to maintain health by eating properly, having enough rest and minimizing stress.
- Discuss with employees the symptoms of influenza or COVID-19, such as congestion, fever, headache, sore throat, muscle aches, diarrhea or upset stomach. Help workers recognize these and require them to refrain from coming to work if symptomatic.
- Consider a policy requiring a doctor’s note to release COVID-19 recovering employees back to work.
- Leverage funds to allow for overtime for healthy workers filling in for sick workers, special supplies, and paying higher costs for necessary goods due to interruptions in regular commerce. The city leaders in San Francisco called a state of emergency due to COVID-19 to begin allocating funds and resources for responding to the virus. Take a page from them and have a ready emergency cash fund for response and operations.
- Review personnel who are approved to release routine operational and emergency funds. Add other individuals if necessary.
- Devise methods to alert workers if the company is shut down or if they must return to work and convey this to them in advance of a disaster. Consider text messaging, use of a specific local TV or radio station, or company social media pages, etc.
- Ensure all employees know how the workplace will notify them about closures or triaged workers/departments.
Pandemic Response Planning is Just Good Business Sense
While COVID-19 is the current focus, other disease outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics have been regular occurrences in history. And they will be in our future, too.
In the last three hundred years, a pandemic has occurred approximately three to four times every century, sweeping the world, and overwhelming hospitals, causing shortages on essential goods or services and business shutdowns. The deadliest pandemic in history took place in 1818–1819 when US deaths were estimated at more than a half-million. Other pandemics of that century occurred in 1957–1958, (which caused 70,000 US fatalities) and in 1968–1969 when 30,000 Americans died from a novel Influenza.
Apart from COVID-19, the potential always exists for novel disease outbreaks. Business owners should always be prepared for outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Epidemiologists agree. It’s not a matter of “if” a pandemic occurs, but “when.” Others will happen in the future.
Be prepared today.