The swine flu outbreak: Business continuity and disaster recovery planning for a pandemic

This article looks at how swine flu may impact your organization and offers practical advice on how to mitigate the impact on your organization.

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Despite the growing number of cases involving the swine flu outbreak, deaths to date have been largely confined to Mexico. Cases in the U.S. have appeared in only a few states; only one death has occurred so far, although experts expect there will be more.

In an address marking his first 100 days in office on April 29th, President Obama said, "our public health officials have recommended that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of this flu strongly consider temporarily closing. If more schools are forced to close, we've recommended that both parents and businesses think about contingency plans if their children do have to stay home."

Review your disaster recovery/business continuity plan and then consider the following when planning for the impact of pandemic:

  1. What travel or trade restrictions are you considering or implementing?
  2. What places around the world do not have a high incidence of H1 flu strains?
  3. What step-by-step preparation and action plan do you have?
  4. What organizational response team roles and responsibility have been assigned?
  5. What succession planning actions have been arranged?
  6. What cross-training activities have been arranged?
  7. How easily can employees who have to work from home do so?
  8. What safety guidelines have been prepared?
  9. How is information on the current situation being communicated to employees and clients?
  10. What human resources and facility planning policies and procedures have been established for a flu outbreak?

Next, consider the following guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

1. Plan for the impact of a pandemic on your organization

  • Identify a pandemic coordinator and/or team with defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness and response planning. The planning process should include input from labor representatives.
  • Identify essential employees and other critical inputs (e.g., raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products, and logistics) required to maintain business operations by location and function during a pandemic.
  • Train and prepare ancillary workforce (e.g., contractors, employees in other job titles or descriptions, retirees).
  • Develop and plan for scenarios likely to result in an increase or decrease in demand for your products and/or services during a pandemic (e.g., effect of restriction on mass gatherings, need for hygiene supplies).
  • Determine potential impact of a pandemic on company business financials using multiple possible scenarios that affect different product lines and/or production sites.
  • Determine potential impact of a pandemic on business-related domestic and international travel (e.g., quarantines, border closures).
  • Find up-to-date, reliable pandemic information from community public health, emergency management, and other sources and make sustainable links.
  • Establish an emergency communications plan and revise periodically. This plan includes identification of key contacts (with backups), chain of communications (including suppliers and customers), and processes for tracking and communicating business and employee status.
  • Implement an exercise/drill to test your plan, and revise periodically.

2. Plan for the impact of a pandemic on employees and customers

  • Forecast and allow for employee absences during a pandemic due to factors such as personal illness, family member illness, community containment measures and quarantines, school and/or business closures, and public transportation closures.
  • Implement guidelines to modify the frequency and type of face-to-face contact (e.g., hand-shaking, seating in meetings, office layout, shared workstations) among employees and between employees and customers (refer to CDC recommendations).
  • Encourage and track annual influenza vaccination for employees.
  • Evaluate employee access to and availability of healthcare services during a pandemic, and improve services as needed.
  • Evaluate employee access to and availability of mental health and social services during a pandemic, including corporate, community, and faith-based resources, and improve services as needed.
  • Identify employees and key customers with special needs, and incorporate the requirements of such persons into your preparedness plan.

3. Establish policies to be implemented during a pandemic

  • Establish policies for employee compensation and sick-leave absences unique to a pandemic (e.g., non-punitive, liberal leave), including policies on when a previously ill person is no longer infectious and can return to work after illness.
  • Establish policies for a flexible worksite (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts).
  • Establish policies for preventing influenza spread at the worksite (e.g., promoting respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette, and prompt exclusion of people with influenza symptoms).
  • Establish policies for employees who have been exposed to pandemic influenza, are suspected to be ill, or become ill at the worksite (e.g., infection control response, immediate mandatory sick leave).
  • Establish policies for restricting travel to affected geographic areas (consider both domestic and international sites), evacuating employees working in or near an affected area when an outbreak begins, and guidance for employees returning from affected areas (refer to CDC travel recommendations).
  • Set up authorities, triggers, and procedures for activating and terminating the company's response plan, altering business operations (e.g., shutting down operations in affected areas), and transferring business knowledge to key employees.

4. Allocate resources to protect employees and customers during a pandemic

  • Provide sufficient and accessible infection control supplies (e.g., hand-hygiene products, tissues and receptacles for their disposal) in all business locations.
  • Enhance communications and information technology infrastructures as needed to support employee telecommuting and remote customer access.
  • Ensure availability of medical consultation and advice for emergency response.

5. Communicate to and educate employees

  • Develop and disseminate programs and materials covering pandemic fundamentals (e.g., signs and symptoms of influenza, modes of transmission), personal and family protection and response strategies (e.g., hand hygiene, coughing/sneezing etiquette, contingency plans).
  • Anticipate employee fear and anxiety, rumors and misinformation and plan communications accordingly.
  • Ensure that communications are culturally and linguistically appropriate.
  • Disseminate information to employees about your pandemic preparedness and response plan.
  • Provide information for the at-home care of ill employees and family members.
  • Develop platforms (e.g., hotlines, dedicated websites) for communicating pandemic status and actions to employees, vendors, suppliers, and customers inside and outside the worksite in a consistent and timely way, including redundancies in the emergency contact system.
  • Identify community sources for timely and accurate pandemic information (domestic and international) and resources for obtaining counter-measures (e.g., vaccines and antiviral medicines).

6. Coordinate with external organizations and help your community

  • Collaborate with insurers, health plans, and major local healthcare facilities to share your pandemic plans and understand their capabilities and plans.
  • Collaborate with federal, state, and local public health agencies and/or emergency responders to participate in their planning processes, share your pandemic plans, and understand their capabilities and plans.
  • Communicate with local and/or state public health agencies and/or emergency responders about the assets and/or services your business could contribute to the community.
  • Share best practices with other businesses in your communities, chambers of commerce, and associations to improve community response efforts.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Department of Health and Human Services.

Influenza kills thousands of people every year (though not at quite the rate currently seen in Mexico). Many organizations are following the spread of the current swine flu as it makes its inevitable way around the world, but we are not sure if it will turn out to be a serious problem. At the moment, the risk to Americans from the H1N1 outbreak is relatively low. Travelers returning from Mexico, in particular, could certainly be infected. The best strategy now is to maintain vigilance, stay informed by listening to comments from the CDC and other government agencies, and update your preparedness plans.

Learn more about the swine flu pandemic.

About this author: Paul F. Kirvan, FBCI, CBCP, CISSP, has more than 20 years experience in business continuity management as a consultant, author and educator. He is also secretary of the Business Continuity Institute USA Chapter.


This was first published in April 2009
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