While the risk of swine flu posing a serious threat to business continuity diminished in May 2009, employers should not become complacent, says Ann Brockhaus, senior occupational safety and health consultant with ORC Worldwide, a global HR management company.
“This is a great time for companies to step back and ask themselves how prepared they were two weeks ago to face a possibly severe pandemic. What would they have done if 30 percent of their workforce had been unable to come to work?”
Testifying in front of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor on May 7, 2009, Brockhaus said that while most large companies are prepared, many small businesses are not.
Pandemic plans often call for cross-training employees ahead of time to take over essential jobs during such a disaster. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that employers train three or more employees to be able to sustain business-necessary functions and operations.
This might be easy if companies are training an administrative assistant to answer incoming calls from customers, but if they need workers to drive a forklift or work with other heavy machinery they need to be careful.
Two Big Concerns
Employers need to be aware of at least two significant safety issues, says Pedro P. Forment, a partner in the Miami office of Ford & Harrison, LLP, a labor and employment law firm. Cross-trained employees who handle jobs tasks for people who are absent have to have the same extensive training (and certification) programs as primary workers, he says. Even if it is only for temporary coverage or for an emergency, the employer’s obligations remain the same.
Don’t stop at initial training requirements. If employees were trained three years ago to operate a forklift, they will need to keep up with retraining requirements.
“That’s what OSHA requires,” says Forment. “But more than that you want to make sure you are giving these employees a chance to sporadically perform those functions so they remain competent and don’t pose a threat to themselves or their co-workers.”
In addition, says Forment, employers need to follow wage and hour regulations in terms of cross-training young workers. Underage workers are restricted from operating certain machinery.
The second safety issue arises when companies are cross-training people to handle emergency preparedness. Employers need to make sure this person has the training to know how to respond to the situation. For instance, if they are responsible for helping people who become sick at work, they might need to be certified in how to deal with bodily fluids.
Forget to Cross-Train?
While OSHA training cannot be neglected, there are alternatives when employers are caught off guard.
Take two or three people out of every area of your workforce who will be essential for business continuity and put them together in core teams on separate floors, allowing them to use separate elevators and come in at different times, says Cy Wakeman, an HR consultant out of Sioux City, Iowa.
And for non-OSHA trained positions, she suggests using web cameras on computers to let employees make training videos that can be stored on the company intranet and used during a possible pandemic. They can be made quickly and kept for future use. Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Tennessee and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.