Avian Influenza: The Duty to Create a Preparedness Plan-Part 2

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Lawyers and policymakers agree that employers are under a legal obligation to safeguard workers and others at the workplace against the risk of avian influenza when and if an outbreak should occur. The hard part is figuring out what exactly you’re supposed to do. The problem is that there are no specific laws and regulations that deal directly with avian influenza or, indeed, most other forms of infectious disease. All that we have at this point in the way of regulatory guidance is:

  • Three sets of avian influenza guidelines issued by the provincial Ministries of Health (in BC, MB and ON); and
  • A scattering of rulings by the OHS regulators interpreting how the OHS laws applied to previous health crises involving other diseases such as SARS and West Nile Virus.

Last month, in Part 1 of this series, we gathered up these shreds of evidence and managed to piece together the outlines of what employers are expected to do to manage the risk of avian influenza. We divided these obligations into two groups: The first which we analyzed last month, is to educate workers and ensure that they practice proper hygiene; the second group of obligations is based not on OHS but business continuity principles. It involves first and foremost the creation and implementation of a pandemic preparedness plan to anticipate and take steps to minimize the potential business disruptions a pandemic would cause. Let’s now look at how to create such a plan.

The 10 Principles of Business Preparedness Planning

Oddly enough, the official source of guidance for business planning has come from provincial health ministries. In fact, the creation of the preparedness plan is the centerpiece of the BC, MB and ON avian influenza guidelines we discussed last month. In other words, education and hygiene are two of the activities incorporated into the recommended business planning process.
Substantively, the principles set out in the three sets of provincial guidelines are essentially the same. What differs is how those efforts are organized and described. The BC Guidelines offer the clearest and most straightforward approach to the creation of the preparedness plan. So let’s base our discussion on the BC model.
The BC Guidelines organize the planning process into 10 discrete objectives:

Objective 1: Getting Organized

The starting point is to organize a team to take charge of planning for your organization:
Step 1: Pick an already existing committee or assemble a new group that includes the safety coordinator, the person in charge of emergency planning (if that person is different) and somebody familiar with labour issues. Even though none of the provincial Guidelines mention it, you should involve the JHSC as part of the planning process.
Step 2: Appoint a senior management official to head the planning team.
Step 3: Establish contacts to monitor workers’ health in each business unit.
Step 4: Establish a contact to stay in touch with the provincial Ministry of Health and other reliable public sources of information about the influenza situation in Canada, your province and your community.

Objective 2: Assess Risks

Treat the risk of pandemic influenza like you would any other workplace hazard and conduct a risk assessment. Evaluate how big a threat influenza represents to your organization:
Step 1: Gauge the vulnerability of each business unit, operation and facility. For example, are there certain facilities of your company that the Ministry of Health might order shut down during a pandemic?
Step 2: Gauge the vulnerability of your business if influenza threatened the viability of any unit, operation and facility. Think of ways—such as opening an alternate facility—to keep operations going with minimal disruption in response to problems that may arise.
Step 3: Consider what role, if any, the government might call on you to play during a crisis. For example, might the government take over parts of your workforce or facility to perform emergency services?

Objective 3: Protect Your Workers’ Health

This objective basically includes the education and infection control measures described in Part 1 of this series and we won’t repeat them here.

Objective 4: Adjust Your Employment Policies

Your current employment policies might not be suitable to address problems that can arise during a pandemic. So you might want to adjust your policies and/or create new ones covering issues such as:

  • Absences of workers who contract the disease;
  • Use of temporary workers, overtime and cancellation of vacation and other special measures to make up for labour shortfalls;
  • Discipline of workers for failing to follow hygiene or infection control guidelines;
  • Replacement of and/or leaves of absences for workers who become infected or have to leave work to tend to family members who get sick.

Objective 5: Plan to Keep the Business Running

To preserve business continuity, the various provincial guidelines recommend that companies:
Step 1: List crucial business functions that pandemic influenza might disrupt. Determine which functions are a priority to maintain and which you can do without, if you had to.
Step 2: Identify the skills and personnel needed to keep the priority functions running.
Step 3: Look for alternative sources to replace the skills and personnel associated with such functions on a short-term basis. First consider sources from within your organization, such as the retraining and reassigning of existing workers and bringing retirees back to work. If you need to go outside the organization, make sure you have access to employment agencies and other sources of replacement labour. And in either case, make sure you have the infrastructure to train and absorb replacement/reassigned workers.
Step 4: In lieu of or in conjunction with Step 3, develop a plan to modify, reduce or halt specific functions—or even close the business temporarily–to cope with the impact of a pandemic-related disruption.
Step 5: Establish an organizational structure to coordinate the emergency response and continuity of operations.

Objective 6: Prepare for Supply and Service Disruptions

Continuity planning needs to focus not just on your own business but that of your vital suppliers. The guidelines recommend that you:
Step 1: List all outside suppliers of critical goods, materials and services to your organization.
Step 2: Identify alternative sources for those goods and services and/or start building (or adding to existing) stockpiles and reserves.
Step 3: Make sure your business has access to contingency funds so it can meet payroll, pay its contractors and meet other critical financial obligations.

Objective 7: Prepare for Absences

If there is a pandemic, the most direct effect on employers will likely be in the form of absenteeism. To prepare:
Step 1: Determine the minimum staff you need to maintain critical business functions.
Step 2: Identify the credentials workers need to fill those functions, for example, license to operate heavy machinery.
Step 3: Start looking for sources of labour to meet those needs. Again, consider both internal—bringing back retirees or retraining existing workers—and external sources.
Step 4: Make sure you have an infrastructure to train and support replacement workers.

Objective 8: Establish Lines of Communication with Workers

Develop the means to communicate with your workforce in case of a pandemic. Make sure you have a system for briefing workers as to developments, both public and within your workplace. You also need to establish a method for remaining in contact with workers who fall ill or take absences to care for others.

Objective 9: Establish Lines of Communication with Outside Business Relations

During an influenza outbreak, each business will need to maintain communication with certain key customers, partners, suppliers and other business relations. Make sure you know who those key relations are to your own business and establish secure means of communicating with them.

Objective 10: Prepare a Pandemic Influenza Management Plan

The final step is to institutionalize all of your preparedness efforts in a written plan:
Step 1: The planning team should prepare a draft plan documenting your planning efforts and listing the results of all planning decisions undertaken in pursuit of Objectives 1 through 9.
Step 2: Give the draft to senior managers, business unit leaders and the JHSC or worker representative for internal review.
Step 3: Give the draft to key suppliers, customers, partners and local government and health officials for external review.
Step 4: Adopt appropriate changes in response to each review.
Step 5: Acquaint workers and management with the details of the plan once it’s been approved.
Step 6: Try out a few scenarios or drills to test the plan and adjust it to correct for any weaknesses revealed.

Conclusion

Is the risk of pandemic influenza overblown? Some say yes; some say no. And trying to determine who’s right is way beyond the scope of the Insider’s expertise.
But here’s something we can tell you. The process of protecting your workforce and preparing your business for an influenza outbreak is a valuable one regardless of what actually happens with avian influenza. Bird flu might turn out to be a false alarm, a second Y2K. But the benefits of planning transcend avian influenza and any other particular disease. The exercise is about preparing your workforce and business for an emergency—health- or safety-related, natural or man-made. To the extent it has mobilized companies to take action, the risk of avian influenza might prove to be a blessing in disguise.