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Prepare for a serious health threat by implementing a pandemic plan

Communicable diseases are a business continuity threat. Paul Kirvan discusses pandemic planning and what should be included in a pandemic plan in this tip.

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa has claimed the lives of nearly 900 people and infected as many as 1,600, including two Americans. The illness, which is spread by human-to-human contact or indirect contact with environments contaminated by the virus, serves as an important reminder that similar health threats could impact your employees -- and your organization. That's why it's a good idea to revisit or create a pandemic plan for your organization.

Examine your existing BC/DR and pandemic plans, if you have them. Are they up to date? Are the names, addresses and contact information for employees and external third parties accurate? If you have skills matrices and succession plans, are they up to date? Be sure to review any business impact analyses and risk analyses to ensure they accurately reflect the business and the most critical business processes.

Issues to consider when examining a pandemic situation

Remember that a pandemic or similar health event focuses on people. Risk assessments can help identify how an organization may be affected in a pandemic event by highlighting the likelihood of such a risk occurring and its potential impact on people. Same for a business impact analysis: Identify the most critical businesses processes, people, internal and external dependencies, critical information systems, resources and vital records. The BIA can pinpoint the financial and reputational implications of a significant loss of staffing. You'll also be able to map the critical business processes and technologies with the key people who make them perform smoothly.

Analyzing the workforce when planning for a pandemic

Working in concert with your HR department, conduct a skills inventory of all employees. This can be as simple as preparing a spreadsheet with all employees on one axis, and a list of critical skills and responsibilities on the other axis. Enter an "x" where employees have specific skills. Map these results against critical business processes to identify the key employees whose skills are essential to the firm. Next, identify employees who are sufficiently trained (or who can be trained) to back up the key employees. Where gaps in backup staff exist, arrange for cross-training.

An extension of a skills matrix is a succession plan, in which specific individuals are identified as being suitably qualified to step in and assume the responsibilities and perform the duties of key company management, if senior managers are unavailable. It can also document critical business processes and procedures for recovering IT systems and services so that others can step in and assist if the primary and secondary employees are unavailable.

Additional preventive measures

Initiate preventive measures, such as hand-washing stations and access to face masks. Communicate regularly with employees on the pandemic program and its importance to the organization. Distribute relevant pandemic information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and state and local agencies. Keep supplies of any relevant medications on-site. Encourage employees to be vigilant about their own health, the health of their colleagues and the health of their families.

What happens if your employees suddenly call in sick?

It is hard to imagine a company being totally unaware of a pandemic or other health threat and its progress. Check media coverage of the situation and information from local, state and federal health organizations regularly. The CDC and WHO post the latest developments on their websites and social media accounts, as well. Social media can also be an effective part of your efforts to keep employees informed. Remember that the spread of a flu outbreak or other health threat within an organization may be slow at first, but can expand quickly if employees do not take preventive measures.

If such calls begin to occur (or even if you suspect your employees may be affected), organize your emergency teams quickly (be sure to include HR and senior management), meet and discuss the situation and decide whether or not to activate your business continuity, disaster recovery and/or succession plans.

What else can you do?

Establish a company-wide policy for dealing with a pandemic. Maintain up-to-date contact lists of employees, supply chain members and other key suppliers, healthcare facilities, emergency response units, and other relevant organizations. Ensure that employees who exhibit abnormal symptoms are quarantined as soon as possible. Maintain vigilance on the situation's progress. Set up authorities, triggers and procedures for activating and terminating the response plan you establish, altering business operations (e.g., shutting down operations in affected areas), and transferring business knowledge and responsibilities to key employees and their backups.

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