Bird flu has been in the news for a long time now and is shrouded in so much uncertainty most people don’t know whether to be worried or dismiss it as simply scaremongering. However, many big businesses have put in place emergency plans in the event that the disease reaches these shores and transmits to humans, as it has elsewhere. So, it is worth medium-sized businesses considering how an outbreak of bird flu, or any other pandemic for that matter, could affect their business.
Avian flu, more formally known as H5N1, currently lacks the ability to transfer from human to human, but, like ordinary flu, it steadily evolves and health officials are concerned it will develop that ability. If this happens, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Small businesses beware
It may seem obvious but smaller businesses are vulnerable, as suddenly losing five staff to illness when you only employ 20 will have a huge impact, particularly if, as is entirely possible, a whole department was wiped out in one fell swoop.
‘No one really knows whether the virus will become a pandemic,’ says Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner, ‘but after warnings from the UN, we’re advising employers to be prepared for the worst. ‘Businesses should evaluate now all real and perceived risks to their organisation. If the virus hits, there’ll be no time for planning.’
From a legal standpoint, ‘there is a framework to ensure the health and safety of employees generally, and it’s important that employers carry out risk assessments regularly to keep up to date,’ explains William Dawson of solicitors Simmons & Simmons. ‘If they don’t deal with it they could be found culpable at an employment tribunal.’
If a pandemic were to strike, consider whether any of your employees travel to affected countries, for business or on holiday, and how many of your staff travel to and from work by public transport; tubes, trains and buses are prime breeding grounds for germs.
Adopt a stay at home policy
If avian flu or any other widespread contagious illness appeared, experts say it would be advisable to have a policy of telling ill staff to stay at home to avoid infecting the whole company. ‘Although this may encourage malingerers,’ says Dawson, ‘it protects against potential action from other employees claiming you could have prevented an outbreak at work.’
It’s important to inform staff of the steps being taken, but to emphasise that it’s a case of being safe rather than sorry. Employees will then feel their wellbeing is being considered but will be reassured that there is no need for panic or undue concern.
As an incentive to address the issue, Dawson points out that should legal action be taken against the company for failing to take reasonable steps to protect employees, the directors, ultimately, are personally liable, meaning that financial penalties can come out of their own pockets. However, he counters this by suggesting that using basic common sense should be sufficient to prevent such an eventuality.
Managing the risks
Aside from the obvious threats to people, the business risks are:
- staff shortage through employees taking time off ill, to care for others, or to avoid infection
- costs of stringent health and safety policies and procedures for preventing spread of the virus
- disruption to public transport making it difficult or impossible for staff to get to work
- costs of home-working solutions for those unable to attend work
- disruption to supply chain
- disruption to business travel, especially by air.