H1N1 flu: Employers need to be proactive this flu season

BRISTOL, TENN. — Plumbing and HVAC contractors need to be proactive and prepare for the possibility of labor shortages the H1N1 Flu, also called the Swine Flu, could cause during this flu season. SESCO Management Consultants is offering businesses proactive steps to follow, decreasing employee exposure to the H1N1 flu, and suggesting steps to take if employees do have the H1N1 flu.

To prepare for possible labor shortages, businesses should plan ways for essential business functions to continue by assessing functions and the reliance that customers have on services or products. Businesses should also be prepared to change practices if needed to maintain critical operations and cross-train personnel to perform critical functions, so that the workplace is able to operate even if key employees are absent.

Businesses also need to be prepared to allow employees to stay home to care for their children if schools and child care centers are closed. It is not recommended that parents bring their children to work. Encourage employees with children to anticipate these closures and to develop contingency plans for the care of their children.

Reduce the risk of exposure

Unlike the seasonal flu, which tends to be of greatest risk to the elderly, the young, and people with existing medical conditions, everyone is at risk for the H1N1 flu. H1N1 can be transmitted in the same way as common flu strains — through any form of direct or indirect contact, including sneezes, coughs, or touching contaminated surfaces, such as door knobs, keyboards, telephones and desks.

Sick persons should stay home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with a flu-like illness should stay home for at least 24 hours after their fever is gone. This guidance does not apply to health care settings where the exclusion period is 7 days from the onset of flu symptoms or until 24 hours after the resolution of symptoms, whichever is longer.

Sick employees at work should be asked to go home, and those employees who become ill with symptoms of the flu during the work day should be separated from other workers and asked to go home promptly.

Businesses should provide employee messages on the importance of covering coughs and sneezes with tissue, and provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles. Employees should be urged to wash their hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner, especially after coughing or sneezing. There should be adequate supplies of soap and hand cleaner in the workplace, and commonly touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs, should be frequently cleaned.

Companies should encourage employees to get vaccinated for the seasonal influenza and the H1N1 flu when the vaccines are available. The new vaccine for H1N1 should be available by mid-October.

If influenza severity increases this fall and winter, local public health officials may recommend that employers implement measures to increase the physical distance between people in the workplace. The goal should be for there to be at least 6 feet of distance between people at most times. These precautionary measures may include avoiding crowded work settings, canceling face-to-face meetings and non-essential travel, and using staggered shifts to allow fewer people to be in the workplace at the same time. If it is feasible for a business to offer employees to telecommute, this is an option that should be considered. This approach allows employees to work from their home, presumably reducing exposure to the flu virus.

Review policies and procedures

Managers need to know if current benefit plans adequately address the impact of the H1N1 pandemic and whether any changes are advisable: review time-off and sick leave policies. Some companies are relaxing attendance policies to allow for a health emergency during the pandemic, so sick days won't impact bonus or performance ratings.

Employee contact information should be updated to ensure that employees' emergency contact information is current. A communication plan should also be created — solid communication strategy is critical to maintaining employees' confidence and productivity before, during and after a pandemic. A communication plan might include the following elements: general education and discussion meetings about the flu pandemic held prior to any outbreak of the flu in the workplace; written materials, providing updates on the H1N1 pandemic and precautions to be taken at home and in the workplace; and electronic information posted on business Intranet Web sites for education, progress reports, travel advisories, etc.