Posted by: kenwbudd | May 5, 2009

Executive Pandemic Preparation

With the H1N1 swine influenza spreading across the world, it’s a good time to discuss and update your pandemic plan. If you do have a plan. If you don’t have one, you are putting your organisation at great risk.

There are measures that can help organisations and that will guarantee the continuity of their operations but for organisations with outdated or without pandemic preparedness plans, the first step is for the executive management team to establish ‘the policy’; guiding principles for the coming weeks and months which address duty of care responsibility and then to communicate this policy and those decisions, to the workforce.

There are also policies and protocols that can have a strong impact in countering a pandemic emergency.

Organisations should ask themselves the following ten questions:

1. Have you defined reliable information sources that you will monitor for situational awareness in the event of an influenza pandemic?

It is essential to ensure that the information sources you choose are reliable, appreciate nuances and bring a degree of expertise and analysis to these types of events. The information gathered from these sources will be critical for your decision-making process and you want to make good decisions based on the best possible knowledge available.

2. Has top management documented a “policy”? A set of guiding principles that outlines:

  • The commitments the firm will make to protect employees and ensure duty of care
  • The types of programs the firm will keep in place
  • The budget available for planning
  • The executive person responsible for implementing these programs

When considering guiding principles during a pandemic, there is a variety of options companies can take. It is important for companies to confirm their guiding principles early on, to control and guide the planning effort.

3. Does the firm have in place a robust Crisis Management & Communications program that will allow executives to make key decisions on a timely basis and communicate messages to both internal and external stakeholders?

Influenza pandemic is a prolonged event and will require management not only to assess and make decisions in response to changing conditions, but to also accurately and effectively communicate these decisions to all necessary parties. Pandemic crisis management requires a completely different perspective, analysis and action-plan than natural disaster crisis planning. The question in pandemic planning, is not how do we pick up the pieces; rather it is how do we live with this emerging situation over the course of the next 18 months?

4. Is there a Business Continuity program in place that documents key products and services that will receive prioritised attention during a time of reduced staff availability?

If only 50 percent of staff is in the workplace on a particular day, which business activities will be conducted and which will be deferred?

Traditional business continuity is based on putting people back to work after sustaining a loss to a building, equipment or other operational systems. Pandemic business continuity planning completely turns this concept on its ear; the building is intact, the systems are functioning but there is a shortage of people. In this scenario, you will have to establish priorities for your reduced workforce and you will have to consider what functions are not absolutely essential to your organization at that moment and defer these functions.

5. Has the firm implemented a robust employee health program that will guide safe workplace protocols, such as facility access, social distancing, and surface cleaning?

In the event of an influenza pandemic, the goal is preventing the virus from spreading. This prevention is applicable for public systems, such as trains and buses, to households and to businesses. Surface cleaning and social distancing both prove effective and can have a major impact. The conventional perspective is that people are universally susceptible to influenza pandemics and we must rely on these approaches to limit contagion.

6. Has the firm documented HR provisions that outline actions employees should take if they become ill and how to handle sick leave and family care issues?

Just as with any other company initiative, people need to know what to do. It sounds so simple, but if you don’t provide clear instruction regarding sick leave, employees will show up to work sick and ask whether they should stay or go. You need to remove any uncertainty in the mind of the employee so that they can stay home and get better without risk of spreading the virus to other employees.

7. Are key strategies for remote connectivity of workers backed up by actual IT capabilities in terms of VPN bandwidth and hardware availability?

The ‘go-to’ solution for many companies during a pandemic is simply to have employees work from home. However, more often than not, there are real IT limitations to this strategy. You need to be realistic and ask whether your existing IT infrastructure can support your entire workforce working from home at once. I can tell you now that the answer will be a resounding ‘No’. Business plans need to take into account how the IT systems work.

8. Has the firm prepared guidance for expatriate employees and mobile workers? Does the firm have the ability to re-create travel patterns for employees, to support investigation into risk exposure?

This goes back to ensuring that your sources of information are reliable and establishing your guiding principles. In normal circumstances, the need for travel policies is clear, but you have to determine whether you will restrict all non-essential travel for employees. When considering expatriate employees, you must decide what care you will offer them and at what point will remove them from their current location.

9. Has the firm discussed its pandemic preparedness efforts with key vendors, suppliers and other business partners?

Even the strongest in-house pandemic preparedness program can be rendered worthless if the company has a dependence on a third-party that is compromised. This is true not only for manufacturers, but also for professional services providers. Companies with an outsourced IT call centres or outsourced legal support, etc., could be left without critical business functions if their outsourced operations are compromised.

10. What is the firms position on the procurement and stockpiling of both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical protective measures? If there is a formal program, who is responsible and are all key provisions up to date?

Stock piled Anti-viral treatments are receiving so much attention right now that it is almost tempting to mistake them for a pandemic preparedness program. They are not. You are advised to look closely at your guiding principles, to determine whether these treatments fit your needs and whether you will procure either or both protective measures. The decisions on both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical protective measures will vary from firm to firm and will vary with circumstances.

Remember, a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) normally prepares an organisation for disasters that have a sudden onset but a limited scope, duration and geographic location. A pandemic outbreak by nature is unpredictable, so the plan must be much more flexible.

We know that pandemics are not limited by geographic location. Most pandemics come in waves that can last from four to six months and that absenteeism is the single most serious threat to businesses.

Most official guidelines recommend the following as a starting point:

  • Develop communication strategies as well as preventative and mitigating measures. These should include sourcing supplies to protect employees, pandemic monitoring, and employee education.
  • Have a documented strategy that deals with a pandemic outbreak in emerging stages (detection, regional outbreak, local outbreak, etc.)
  • Have a documented policy and strategy that includes the facilities, procedures, people and systems that are needed to keep your business up and running.
  • Don’t just have a plan, test it and update it.
  • Monitor and review the plan regularly to keep it up to date.
  • Secure the services of a Pandemic BC expert and take head of good advice.

The current H1N1 swine flu is not thought to be the most virulent of pandemics, which is great news but it does give us a ‘wake-up’ call. Let’s dust off those old plans and bring them up to date and don’t forget the demand on scarce resources that will occur during a ‘real’ pandemic outbreak.

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