Pictured:
Stuart Jackson

Pandemics: Plan But Don’t Panic


With the flu season in full stride and the potential threat of the coronavirus lurking, what should businesses do to ensure a healthy-as-possible workplace?

First, don’t panic. Instead, begin by looking at what policies your company has in place that would come into play during a significant outbreak: Do you have a sick leave policy? Do you provide employees sick leave or paid time off? Remind yourself and your employees of those policies. Bottom line – give your sick employees incentive to stay home.

Second, consider another reminder to employees, this time about basic common sense – wash your hands frequently, cough into your arm, and if you are sick, do not come to work!

Third, make hand sanitizer gel or wipes available. Hand sanitization is a key way to prevent the spread of many illnesses. If hand sanitizer is not available, good old fashioned soap will do. Hand sanitization items can be placed in entrance areas, employee lounges or eating areas, next to time-clocks, and bathrooms. Have your cleaning personnel do simple things as well, such as cleaning doorknobs and cabinet handles, to help fight the spread of any contagious illness. Definitely make sure bathrooms (including door and faucet handles) are cleaned daily.

Fourth, educate your employees on things they can do to prevent the spread of illnesses. Did you know that some of the most “germy” things in an office are personal cell phones and computer keyboards? A quick wipe of these items and any “high-touch” surfaces at the start of the day can do a lot of good. When there is an outbreak of an illness, check the Center for Disease Control’s website at cdc.gov for useful information about the symptoms of the illness, how it is spread, and preventative measures to take, and share that information with your employees.

When and if there is a serious outbreak that shows real potential for hospitalization or even death, more stringent practices can be put into place, such as requiring employees who have been exposed to an illness to “telecommute” or otherwise stay away from work during any incubation period, requiring employees who have been exposed to take a test to determine if they have the illness before being allowed to return to work, limiting travel, checking temperatures of employees as they walk in, sending home employees who show any symptoms of the illness, or even shutting down all or part of an office or facility.

Given the variety of circumstances a business could face, give yourself the flexibility to address each situation on a case-by-case basis.  Planning, however, is important. Here are some issues to address:

  • What policies do you already have in place that could impact your reaction to a pandemic or quarantine?
  • What would you do if a large part of your workforce could not work due to illness? Would your normal attendance policies need to be modified if employees could not work for extended periods of time?
  • How would you react to a closure of a school if several of your employees have school-aged children?
  • Which employees are critical to your business, and how would you replace them on a short-term basis? Is cross-training a viable option?
  • How would management and staff communicate with each other during a pandemic or quarantine situation?
  • Should you consider limiting person-to-person contact within your facility? Should these limits extend to vendors, customers and the public in general?
  • On what occasions should you consider a partial or total shut-down of the facility?
  • Are there any extraordinary steps that should be taken regarding the cleanliness or safety of the facility?
  • What happens if an employee displays symptoms or becomes ill at work?
  • How can you ensure employees have access to health information and appropriate health care if needed during a pandemic or quarantine?
  • What steps should you take to ensure the confidentiality of any health information related to your ill employees?
  • Are there local, state or federal agencies who can provide information or support during a pandemic or quarantine?

Planning and education are the best ways to address pandemic illness issues in the workplace, whether we are talking about 2009 (H1N1), today or in the future.  Start thinking now about how your business will react.