Until recently, pandemic planning wasn’t the highest priority on a company’s to-do list. After all, before COVID-19, the last pandemics were the H1N1 (pdm09) flu virus in 2009, the H3N2 virus in 1968, the H2N2 virus in 1957 and the H1N1 virus in 1918. The impact of the 2009 virus was far less severe than any of the previous pandemics making companies further complacent about the risks attributed to epidemics.
Whether an existing pandemic plan could use a refresh or a new one needs to be created, a lot of the information required has likely been previously compiled and just needs to be repurposed.
Identify pandemic team
In the face of a pandemic, a team effort is required. As with any policy or procedure, it’s important to outline the roles and responsibilities in an effort to minimize the impact a pandemic would have on the company as a whole. The JHSC, senior leadership, safety and human resources professionals are trained to handle roles such as these and would be a great basis to form a pandemic management team.
Once assembled, this team needs to create/modify the pandemic plan to ensure it addresses the current situation. The best way to stay informed is from credible sources such as the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health and let employees know how this information will be communicated to them whether it will be via email, telephone, intranet so they can stay apprised of the current situation. Safety professionals are well-versed in identifying hazards before they occur when conducting a Job Hazard Analysis. That same forecasting needs to be applied to the pandemic plan outlining the company stance when faced with risk in various scenarios.
Emergency communications are vital to a pandemic plan. This includes extending additional resources to employees (i.e. employee assistance programs, remote worker access), identifying key contacts within the company, outlining responsibilities and ensuring the emergency contact list is up to date. Another important part of the communication is to outline the symptoms of the illness and what can be done to minimize the spread within the company—hand hygiene products, posters, PPE, etc.
Review current policies
Employee attendance is often impacted during a pandemic, and existing workplace sick leave policies may miss the mark in these situations. Often doctor’s notes and limited time off are standard practices but the threat of having sick workers come into work before they’re feeling better is more of a risk than having them stay home for a few extra days. And since the demand for doctors significantly increases at the announcement of an impending pandemic, a doctor’s note may not be practical. If exposure to the illness is suspected among any employees or clients that may have come into contact with employees, communication from the pandemic team is critical.
If cross-training had not been previously done among employees, get employees up to speed on vital functions other than their own specific job tasks. If an employee is unable to be at work to complete their job functions it will give them peace of mind to know that someone else was trained to fill in for them. Work options should include shift staggering, flex-hours and working from home, where possible. It’s also important to stay on top of operating hours—knowing when to resort to restricted hours or to close completely. If self-isolation or quarantine is required, expectations need to be defined. Since it is a relatively new term to most, a social distancing policy should be developed to outline how 6-feet of distance can be maintained while completing job functions.
The best way to have a pulse on the operations within a business is to journal activities as the pandemic progresses. This could include identifying any people from outside the office that personnel may have come into contact with, putting in a strict regimen of writing down the date and time of all visitors to the office, thorough meeting details, documenting which employees are sick, what their symptoms are and how long they’ve been off for. Recent travel itineraries—both business and personal—would also be helpful to note. As the pandemic evolves, eliminate person-to-person exposure by setting up delivery drop spots and communicate the delivery instructions prior to the drivers arriving on site.
Business as (not-so-)usual
The threat of a pandemic can cause emotions to run high at any level in the company. Being prepared can help ease that stress. Human factors training can help organizations when they need to make rapid decisions in the eye of the pandemic based on the current state, how it progresses, etc. Knowing how to control their state of mind can enhance their ability to gather data, make quick decisions, and communicate effectively to lower risks and avoid mistakes.
Review the emergency preparedness plan to ensure it covers pandemic situations—update accordingly. Identify essential employees that will need to work through closures and outline the expectations through each phase in the pandemic. The company travel policy may need to change significantly—keep those on the travel list supplied with the most up-to-date information. Planned events may need to be monitored on a day-to-day basis to determine the need to be postponed or canceled (or why not try a virtual event—attendance online could prove better than in person).
From a safety standpoint, make sure that proper PPE and sanitation supplies (gloves, respirators, eye protection, disinfecting wipes and sprays, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, tissues) are available for when the supply decreases from increased demand. It may be company policy to share phones, desks, tools and equipment but limit sharing where possible and activate a strict cleaning and disinfecting protocol before and after use.
Develop a full contingency plan to limit interruptions to work. Review employee training plans—a pandemic may be the perfect opportunity to train employees if production hits a lull. Human factors training is effective in times of heightened states and greater risk. Don’t forget to check in with employees, make sure they’re working on new habits where new working situations and environments exist and not forgetting to keep all the usual hazards and safety procedures in mind.
Pandemic planning may seem scary at first, but the required people and materials are already at your fingertips. Ensure to start planning early, following a well-thought-out plan is easier than scrambling to figure out what to do in an emergency.