Shortly after the swine flu started making headlines as it spread from Mexico to other countries in April 2009, Mexican health care workers told the news media that they were not adequately prepared to treat patients and stay healthy themselves. With little training on working during a pandemic and a short supply of medications and supplies designed to keep them healthy, treating virus victims became a dangerous proposition.
Swine flu seems to have passed through the United States without morphing into a killer virus—for now. But experts say it might reappear during the fall of 2009 in a stronger form—one that might sicken thousands and begin claiming victims with little to no warning. This begs the question: What should companies be doing to protect their health care workers?
HR: Prepare Now
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends those concerned visit Pandemicflu.gov, a web site managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It addresses preparation for health care workers, breaking information down by occupation. Recommendations for home health care workers, professionals in hospitals and other care facilities, long-term care employees, and EMTs and other emergency services professionals are presented in checklist form. Federal health officials recommend HR professionals in these businesses complete the checklist for their employees and begin to prepare immediately to keep them safe.
One of the recommendations is that companies that provide health care services begin to stockpile anti-viral medications to use on a prophylactic basis for workers who will be in direct contact with patients. The agency recommends having these drugs on hand for companies that have employees overseas in areas that are not reached by U.S. pandemic response efforts.
A report released in April 2009 by the AFL-CIO stated that a 2008 survey found that more than one-third of U.S. health care facilities are ill-prepared for a dangerous pandemic, with no written plan for dealing with such an event. And 43 percent of survey respondents said they believed that employees would stay home from work during a pandemic because their employers were not ready for such an event.
According to findings from an online poll conducted with 462 HR professionals from the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) membership between April 29 and May 5, 2009, few employers are taking extra flu precautions. Most respondents in the SHRM poll (57 percent) don’t think swine flu will have a negative impact on their organizations’ overall business operations.
Scare as Dress Rehearsal
HR professionals at U.S. health care facilities say that while they’re thankful the current virus hasn’t been particularly dangerous thus far, they’re treating it as a dress rehearsal for the next one.
“We notified all employees and supervisors of our direct-care workforce of the public health threat, and we published the CDC information for them,” says Sue Fortier, vice president of human resources for Granite State Independent Living in Concord N.H., which provides in-home care to elderly patients. Fortier says that her department spelled out the CDC recommendations for its workers—sneeze into your elbow, don’t go to work sick, use hand sanitizer and soap and water—and it reviewed its policies for working during a major illness event.
“We reinforced the messages to use proper hygiene, underscored the need to not panic, and asked everyone to use common sense,” she says.
Chana Anderson, director of human resources for Jewish Home San Francisco, says her company went a few steps farther. Because it provides care in an inpatient setting, she says, the building was put on a modified lockdown, with only one entrance/exit open. Everyone coming into the building was asked to use hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken. Anyone with a fever of 100 degrees or higher (including employees) was told to come back another day.
“It cost us some money,” she says, noting that the facility generally keeps anti-viral medications on hand anyway.
“We looked at the recommendations of the CDC and of the California Department of Public Health, along with those from our county,” she says. “We didn’t come up with these arbitrarily.
“Our employees are concerned about their own health, but they also want to work,” she says, adding that she’s treating the current outbreak as a dress rehearsal. “We’ve made it very clear that they should be careful. We want them to stay home if they’re sick, and it won’t count against them under our usual attendance policy.”
Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Government Asks Employers to Stock Anti-virals for Critical Workers, SHRM Online Safety and Security Discipline, May 2009
Experts: Telework Might Hold Key to Pandemic Solution, SHRM Online Technology Discipline, May 2009