How could the swine flu outbreak affect U.S. workplaces?

Yesterday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano held a press conference on swine flu and touched on how the outbreak may affect the American workplace.

Repeating President Obama’s message, Napolitano reminded the audience that “swine flu is a cause for concern, but not a cause for alarm. We are simply in preparation mode. We do not yet know how widespread this flu will be within the United States. So we continue to move aggressively to prepare.”

Napolitano asked that private employers assist the federal and state governments in protecting their workers.
“We are reaching out to the private sector to make sure that they are preparing and to inform them of the latest actions we are taking. It's important that they be thinking ahead about what they would do should this erupt into a full-fledged pandemic, which it has not yet, by the way,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the federal government are stressing that people use common sense right now to reduce the impact that any flu, including swine flu, may have on the U.S. public.

The CDC is advising the public to take these everyday actions to stay healthy:
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing. Dispose of the tissue immediately after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth to avoid spreading germs.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you feel ill, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to avoid spreading the flu.
The CDC and HHS have also put together a business pandemic influenza planning checklist that companies can use to prepare for a potential flu outbreak and other emergencies.

These simple measures can “materially improve” the chances of swine flu becoming a full-fledged pandemic, said Napolitano.

“I mean, the normal tendency is, you know, we have a lot of Type A personalities and people want to go, keep working, and—we're saying don't do that if you believe realistically that you have the flu. If you don't know but you show some of the symptoms, contact your doctor. ”

“Everybody has a role to play here. It's our function to make sure that what the government is doing is coordinated, that we are thinking in advance of the problem,” she said. “But, again, government cannot do this alone. We all have an important part to play.”

Currently, there are 64 confirmed cases of swine flu in the U.S., including 45 in New York City, according to the CDC. The swine flu outbreak in Mexico is suspected in 152 deaths and more than 1,600 illnesses, according to the Mexican health minister.

As doctors try to understand and bring the swine flu outbreak under control, many people are nervous that the virus will continue to spread. It also leaves some important questions up for discussion:
  • What are the implications for business and HR policies?
  • Is preventing/identifying swine flu a workplace training need yet with so few cases in the U.S. and all mild?
  • Will it affect hiring/business expansion plans if the spreading swine flu could further hurt the U.S. economy?

What do you think? Is it time for businesses to start taking action? Leave a comment and let us know.

Fight the flu at work by raising awareness of sanitary procedures with these helpful flu prevention solutions.

Download "Flu in the Workplace," a free white paper on how to keep employees safe and get a better understanding of your rights as an employer.


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