Global Pandemic Planning Critical to Minimize H1N1 Flu’s Impact

By Aliah D. Wright Sep 16, 2009

Consider this scenario: An expatriate develops a severe fever and cough while working in an overseas office and H1N1 (swine) flu is suspected. Said employee then requires repatriation from the remote site because of his inability to perform his duties.

What is the employer’s responsibility? Better yet, have you planned for such a contingency?

When it comes to planning for a global pandemic, failing to plan could mean planning to fail, experts at International SOS said during a recent audio conference on fighting the H1N1 pandemic, hosted by Workplace Training Center.

Experience is the best teacher, said the company’s executive vice president, Tim Daniel. Located in Trevose, Pa., International SOS provides medical assistance, international health care and security services.

Take malaria, for example, Daniel said. “Companies that inform their employees and make employees go through training [as well as take prophylactic medications] have very few cases of it in their international work forces,” he said. “What we can do is prepare people better and hopefully avoid some of those situations.”


"In some cases, your first responder [after an injury or illness] might be a witch doctor or someone with very basic first aid skills."

Dr. Myles Druckman, International SOS.

Whether you have employees in London or Timbuktu, businesses should employ a series of best practices when it comes to global pandemic planning—particularly when it comes to H1N1.

They include: assessing the risk; planning strategically; having policy and procedures in place to mitigate such risks; communicate with, educate and train employees; track the spread of the disease; control or contain exposure; and assist employees when possible.

HR professionals will need to assess the risk to the employee and the risk to the business if something were to happen to that employee.

Duty of Care

Employers need to realize they have an obligation or duty of care to their employees (and their families in the case of international assignments)—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because they could face legal action if they fail to do so.

“By having done that risk assessment and putting in policies, you’re going to look much better if an employee takes [legal] action or a family member takes action,” Daniel said.

Aside from making money, “the main objectives of a company are to support and protect its people. And if you’re going to do that, you need to get a better understanding of where they are, where they travel and where they work,” said Dr. Myles Druckman, vice president of medical services with International SOS.

“Productivity is the benefit of putting these programs together. And you’re going to be able to better protect your organization as well,” he said.

First, consider global risk exposure. When it comes to swine flu, HR needs to know how quickly the disease is spreading. Determine, too, how much risk the staff faces. How many people are working outside your headquarters? Whether they are traveling outside or living outside the United States, determine who will take care of them, and how they will get to that care. Determine beforehand what other factors can influence risk, such as the environment of their working circumstances, diet, age and health conditions.

For example, Druckman said, “a 260-pound, insulin-diabetic engineer with asthma can still work in Kansas but may not be the ideal candidate to work in remote Africa.”

He said that the “assignment’s location is critical.”

According to 2003 statistics from the World Health Organization, pre-existing conditions are the second and third leading causes of mortality among expatriates. Society for Human Resource Management research shows that one in 10 expatriate assignments fail because of health or family reasons. What’s more, the average cost of a failed international assignment is $1 million.

Of major importance, too, is assessing the quality of the health care.

During the presentation, Druckman pointed to two slides. One was of a state-of-the-art ambulance complete with pristine medical equipment and cushioned bedding. The other was the back of a van with an exposed tire, a mat on a stretcher and a bucket of water.

“This is a real challenge for most organizations,” Druckman said. “What is the quality of the health care?” Often companies need to have some level of medical expertise to get the best judgment. “In some cases, your first responder [after an injury or illness] might be a witch doctor or someone with very basic first aid skills.”

Back to the Flu

So why do companies need to have a pandemic plan? So they “can reduce the impact of influenza on your workforce and try to delay and prolong the wave over a long period of time,” Druckman said.

Develop a pandemic plan that is scalable to the community in which the employees are working and then plan for interventions: containment and business continuity. Monitor the situation by watching what happens in local schools, Druckman said.

He said officials “believe the schools are the canary in the coal mine—if you start to see absenteeism rise in schools, you can expect potentially within a week to 10 days you’ll see absenteeism in the workplace.”

Companies can try to stop or delay the entry of the virus into the workplace by keeping people who are sick away from other employees; restricting employee travel; instigating social distancing (keeping people far away from each other whether inside their buildings or requiring them to work from home); and distributing anti-viral medicines and masks.

Allow employees back gradually after the pandemic eases, but be mindful that the pandemic might not be over as quickly as hoped.

“Fatalities will drive severity,” Druckman said, “Most fatalities have occurred in people after a few weeks of being ill—and it might be weeks before they die. The more people that are ill, the more likely there will be fatalities,” he said.

“We still assume 98 to 99 percent of the people will survive the illness,” but companies should “monitor who is getting better, who can return to work.”

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


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect