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Swine Flu Fears Trigger Crisis Response Plans

Risk managers around the globe are working to reduce the risk to their organizations of a possible influenza pandemic by doing everything from offering basic advice on avoiding infection to ensuring that business continuity plans are in place.

May 5, 2009
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Risk managers around the globe are working to reduce the risk to their organizations of a possible influenza pandemic by doing everything from offering basic advice on avoiding infection to ensuring that business continuity plans are in place.

As they closely monitor information from international health authorities about the spread and severity of the virus, risk managers have begun implementing procedures and plans that, in many cases, were developed in response to the avian flu and SARS threats earlier this decade.

Wayne L. Salen, director of risk management at Labor Finders International Inc. in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, said the industrial temporary staffing company is sending employees the latest information from health authorities and reminding its customers to alert the company if a temporary staffer is ill.

If a temporary staffer shows symptoms of swine flu—or H1N1 flu—the company is encouraged to send the employee directly to the emergency room, he said.

He also said the company’s system allows managers to operate branches from remote areas, should an outbreak occur.

Past pandemic scares allowed firms to test their response procedures and see what worked and what didn’t, said Lance Ewing, vice president of risk management at Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Three years ago, most of us [saw] a trailer of this same movie and it was known as avian flu,” he said.

The most prominent lesson from the avian flu threat was the importance of educating employees about universal precautions like hand-washing and seeking medical attention if they exhibit symptoms of the flu, Ewing said.

Harris County, Texas, is following the lead of public health authorities in advising employees about the specific symptoms of swine flu and sanitary measures to limit its spread, said David Kester, risk management director for the county in Houston.

In addition, the county has modified a policy that mandates employees out of work for more than four days provide a note from a physician; for flu-like symptoms, that threshold has been extended to six days. Public health authorities have expressed concern about a flood of patients overwhelming physicians and hospitals and the county does not want its sick leave policy to contribute to the problem.

“We don’t want [employees] to say, ‘Gosh, I need to go get a doctor’s note or I won’t get paid,’ ” he said.

Ewing said risk managers should check with their insurers to see to what extent business interruption, workers’ comp and liability policies cover flu-related losses.

“This is not the time to dust off the Bible and figure out which verse applies,” he said. “You should probably know ahead of time.”

Harrah’s is monitoring any employees traveling on business to affected countries, Ewing said.

Business continuity plans
Continuity plans are occupying risk managers everywhere.

Risk managers have a vital role to play in ensuring that their companies have business continuity, human resources and disaster recovery plans in place to deal with a pandemic such as a flu outbreak, said Franck Baron, a director of the Federation of European Risk Management Associations and head of international relations at the Swiss Association of Insurance and Risk Managers.

Risk managers may need to check whether their company has stocks of antiviral drugs, gloves and masks, for example, he said.

Katoen Natie swiftly enacted its existing pandemic plan—with adaptations—in its Mexico City and Texas operations, said Carl Leeman, chief risk officer for the Antwerp, Belgium-based logistics, storage and distribution company.

The company, which has had no staff members fall ill, has taken several preventive measures, Leeman said. For example, staff telephones, keyboards and door handles are cleaned several times a day, truck drivers are no longer allowed inside offices, and commercial staff has been asked not to travel.

Businesses must have business continuity plans in place to deal with a pandemic outbreak, said Marg Hemsley, president of the Western Australia chapter of the Risk Management Institution of Australasia Ltd. “Organizations must focus on protecting their workers and business continuity planning to ensure critical functions and services are maintained.”

Hemsley was involved in Western Australia’s preparation for an avian flu pandemic and said that while businesses in the region were well-placed to respond, they needed to guard against complacency.

“In discussing the bird flu epidemic, many businesses thought they would not be affected because they didn’t deal with birds. There is a risk of the same attitude” with swine flu, she said.

One potential outcome of a pandemic for which businesses must be prepared is a lack of available staff, she said. Employees who are not sick but who live a long way away from the workplace or those whose children’s day care facilities have been closed because of a flu outbreak, may not be able to come to work, she said.

Risk managers should ask themselves what effect absenteeism would have on their businesses and what effect staff shortages at suppliers or customers could have on the operation, she said.

Risk managers should monitor the World Health Organization Web site, www.who.int, said Julia Graham, chief risk officer at law firm DLA Piper in London and chair of the Association of Insurance and Risk Managers.

“The first thing people should do is monitor the phases,” she said. “Then look to your business continuity plans according to those phases,” she said.

When the WHO preparedness level reached phase 3, risk managers should have made sure that their plans were up to date, Graham said.

When that level reaches 5, as it did last week, business continuity plans typically would be triggered and moves such as travel restrictions should be implemented, she said.


Filed by Zack Phillips and Sarah Veysey of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. Business Insurance senior editor Mike Bradford contributed to this report. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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