As Swine Flu Spreads, What Should HR Do?

By Aliah D. Wright Apr 29, 2009

Even though the United States has declared a health emergency regarding the outbreak of swine flu and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging everyone to take precautions, human resource executives and disaster preparedness experts are urging people not to panic.

That’s the advice Bonnie Daniels, SPHR, GPHR, is handing out to employees at MiTek Industries Inc., in Chesterfield, Mo., where she is vice president of human resources.

And if anyone should have a right to panic, it should be Daniels. She spoke to SHRM Online on April 28, 2009—her first day back at work after returning from a seven-day Caribbean cruise where the first port of call was Cozumel, Mexico.

“I’m not nervous at all,” said Daniels, a former member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Employee Health, Safety and Security Special Expertise Panel. “I’m really not. I don’t feel bad. I don’t have a fever. I don’t feel nauseous. Honestly, I was in Cozumel for all of four hours.” She added that she’s more likely to have caught something from one of the 3,000 people on the ship than from anyone in Mexico.

Daniels advises HR professionals not to panic when it comes to this latest health scare. After all, we’ve survived SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the avian flu.

She said MiTek is having companywide safety meetings on appropriate hand-washing protocols and respiratory infection etiquette. The company is cleaning bathrooms thoroughly, wiping down door handles, public phones and other communal surfaces with antibacterial wipes. She said it’s also making sure hand sanitizers, paper towels and tissues are available in all of its facilities.

“We’re also advising employees that if they are sick not to come to work. This is what we normally do around flu and cold season. We’re just re-emphasizing normal protocol.” She said all HR professionals should follow suit.

“We don’t want to create panic, but we do want to create awareness and re-emphasize the appropriate procedures for maintaining a healthy work environment,” she explained.

Ann Brockhaus, senior occupational safety and health consultant for ORC Worldwide, a global HR consulting firm, concurred. She added that the best thing HR can do in addition to all of the above is to keep employees informed by suggesting they bookmark the web site for the CDC.

The CDC web site is the best place for credible health information—especially for U.S. companies. Global companies should turn to the World Health Organization’s web site, she said.

Felipe Portocarrero, director of operations for VOLO Recovery, an Ormond Beach, Fla., disaster recovery business that’s been monitoring the chatter about the swine flu on Twitter, said networking users are reacting with panic or apathy.

“It never hurts you to be prepared,” he conceded. “You don’t want to be caught off guard in a situation like this. You don’t want to be reactive as a company instead of proactive. It’s never too early to begin” disaster planning.

Keeping that in mind, Portocarrero suggests that HR departments do four things:

  •     Secure your talent.
  •     Secure communications between the business and employees.
  •     Secure communications between clients and customers.
  •     Secure your data.

“The most important thing”—after securing employees, of course—“is your data,” he said. Make sure you have access to your data systems. Everything is digitized these days—customer data, employee data, contracts, finances.

Being prepared is paramount, no matter what’s going on, he added. “If it’s not the swine flu, it’s going to be a fire or a flood or a bomb threat. The list of things that could affect your business operations is endless.”

HR executives worldwide are concerned about the pandemic.

On April 28, 2009, nearly 300 health and safety and human resource members of ORC Worldwide participated in a 90-minute teleconference about swine flu preparedness, Brockhaus said. She said some revealed that despite the suggested travel restrictions, many were still sending employees to Mexico, but only for mission-critical business.

“One of the topics that came up … was what are you doing about paying people who just came home on business from Mexico,” she said. “The general consensus was to continue paying people their salaries while they’re at home [whether they’re working or not] to make sure they’re not in the incubation period for swine flu. It’s counterproductive to tell people to stay home if they’re sick and then forcing them to work without pay.”

If it gets to the point where there are mass quarantines, Brockhaus said, generally, companies should have a pandemic flu coordination team that includes a pandemic flu coordinator for an enterprise as a whole as well as a coordinator for each site. The team should be cross-functional.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Quick Links:

Guide to Pandemic Preparedness for Businesses,” ORC Worldwide guide that addresses six critical categories companies need to focus on when preparing for a pandemic

Swine flu: Frequently Asked Questions,

Related Link:

SHRM Poll: Contingency Plans for Avian Flu, SHRM Research PowerPoint, March 22, 2006

Related Articles:

Pandemic, HR Magazine, May 2006

Employers Urged to Stockpile Respirators To Combat Flu Pandemic, SHRM Online Safety and Security Discipline, May 2008

HR Essential to Develop Organization’s Emergency Protocols, HR News, June 2008


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