Are you prepared to handle flu-related HR issues?

As the World Health Organization (WHO) raises the alert level of the H1N1 flu virus (aka. swine flu), employers’ concern over how an outbreak could affect their businesses has seemingly tapered off.

The WHO officially declared the H1N1 flu virus a pandemic on Thursday by raising the threat level of the virus to Phase 6. The pandemic status of the virus doesn’t mean that it is more dangerous, but that it has infected people in more countries. The Phase 6 threat level means community-level outbreaks have hit more than one continent.

News coverage surrounding swine flu has calmed down and so seems employers’ concern regarding any danger the illness may pose to their organizations. Approximately two in five employers (41%) do not have a human resources policy in place for health-related emergencies, although they have employees working in areas with confirmed swine flu (or Influenza A) cases, according to a survey by Mercer.

“With the continued increase of reported cases of Influenza A [swine flu], it is important for employers to develop a plan for dealing with the myriad HR issues that can arise in the event of a pandemic or other health care emergency,” said Danielle Dorling, a consultant in Mercer’s HR effectiveness consulting business. “In particular, organizations with a global workforce and decentralized HR units need to have a coherent procedure in place for employee care in the event of a health emergency.” (Mercer press release)

Among the key survey findings:
  • 53% of the employers surveyed were considering whether to create back-up and contingency plans in response to the outbreak
  • 43% said they planned to restrict or cancel business travel
  • 41% said they planned to allow employees to work at home
  • 27% opted for voluntary quarantine for employees exposed to risk
  • 24% enforced quarantine on employees judged at risk
  • 24% indicated they were taking no special actions.

Employers also said they would cancel meetings, screen staff members returning from travel, require medical check-ups and review health or insurance plans as a result of the recent swine flu outbreak.

“Business continuity plans should be standardized and employers must be able to communicate in a streamlined, swift and decisive fashion,” Dorling said. “Ad-hoc reaction can lead to confusion, unnecessary panic and expensive global inconsistencies that can expose the organization to significant financial risk.”

In April, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano asked private employers to do their part in helping the federal government protect workers from the illness, saying that employers should be thinking ahead about what they would do if affected by swine flu or other contagious diseases.

Before you create policies and procedures regarding the spread of viral infections in your workplace, there are a few legal and ethical issues to consider. Employers should know the rights of exposed employees, if they can order employees to go home and how the Americans with Disabilities Act could come into play, among a list of other important questions.

G.Neil’s free “Flu in the Workplace” white paper explains the answers to those questions along with information on how to protect your employees and business from serious contagious diseases.

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