Are You Prepared for Bird Flu?

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm

Reads like a bad dream doesn’t it? Yet the bird flu’s technical designation, H5N1, has the potential, some economists believe, to cost between $600 billion and $1 trillion in direct U.S. company losses.

TEC associate Armistead Whitney, this month’s key resource on the subject, says it’s time for U.S. firms to wake up and prepare for the worst.

The startling fact is that the problem has already started. As of March, 117 people have been infected and 98 have died of the Avian virus. Countries involved include Iraq, Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and China.

Disturbingly, the World Health Organization has some reason to believe that a few isolated cases have been spread from human to human.

Is your company prepared?

The first step is to survey your business operations and assess what the likely impact of a pandemic flu would be. Consider:

The 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people around the world has characteristics similar to the current virile strain. Recently it has been concluded that during the 1918 pandemic, the virus jumped from birds to humans and that might already have occurred today.

The pandemic could come in multiple waves, each more devastating than the prior one.

As we learned from Katrina, you shouldn’t count on federal, state or local governments to protect you and your employees.

Misinformation might be everywhere, mainly in the form of exaggerated media reports.

 It’s likely that the U.S. health care system will be overwhelmed and unable to provide the necessary response.

 So what can you do? Start by determining how safe you are:

• Do you have a written crisis preparedness plan?

• Does everyone on your management team have assigned roles during a crisis such as a

pandemic flu?

• Do at least five employees know how to turn off your heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in an emergency?

• Can employees receive emergency instructions through text messaging?

• Do you have floor captains who make up your "first response" team?

• Have you spoken with your suppliers to minimize disruption of their services?

• If you are operating globally, is your plan in place at each global location?

Seven steps for disaster preparedness

As for your actual plan, it should have a minimum of seven components:

The CEO’s role. Your strategic oversight falls into three categories.

Identifying by type the threats and disasters, in addition to the pandemic flu, that could hurt your operations.

Insuring that integrated action plans are in place to assist your entire workforce if there’s a catastrophic emergency.

Requiring periodic benchmarking reviews of your disaster-preparedness program to prevent obsolescence in any area.

Have a third party perform an "enterprise preparedness" assessment. It’s designed to identify the gaps that are putting your operations, employees and revenues at risk. Your accounting firm may offer this service. Some casualty insurance companies do as well. It’s the single most important step you can take to reduce the impact of a flu pandemic or other natural disaster.

Ask your key suppliers about their disaster preparedness plan. This is especially true for overseas vendors in the Pacific Rim region. There’s a strong probability that they will be hit first. You’d benefit from partnering with them to make sure that your plans are complementary. Identifying alternative sources of supply could be critical to sustaining your business operation. Better to do that before the fact.

Each office should have its own crisis coordinator, and everyone in the office should know who it is. The coordinator is responsible for carrying out the preparedness plan in those areas that affect the employees within his or her office.  They should be provided easy-to-use guides such as how to recognize flu symptoms, isolation procedures, emergency care guidelines, etc.

Make sure your company has at least seven days of emergency supplies, including water, power, food packets and N-95 masks. Employees might not be able to leave for home in their cars or on mass transit during a crisis, and it will be up to you to feed them and keep them safe.

Have a critical workforce and remote telecommunications plan in place. The leadership team should be able to work from remote, non-contaminated locations, including their homes. If your company is global, it should have satellite cell capabilities. Updated lists on the location of all employees, sick and healthy, should be made available to the critical workforce.

Have a reliable system for monitoring the extent of human-to-human transmission. The media will tend to exaggerate, especially during the early stages of the pandemic (remember the exaggerated Katrina fatality estimates). You need to ensure your plan is activated before it’s too late to do so proactively.

This article has focused primarily on strategies of preparing for a disaster. But the tactical, common sense issues are equally important.

For example, what about policies regarding the use of public transportation to get to work? Skeleton crew minimums? Availability of laptops to work from home? Handling sick pay during a pandemic? Strict hygiene requirements and developing "clean room" standards for washrooms and common public areas? These are just a few of the things that should be included in employee safety manuals. They’re important addendums to a preparedness plan.

Finally, without practice-no different than fire drill simulations-an emergency plan is nothing more than words on paper. As one TEC member put it, "we pretend that it’s on its way, and we act on it. We don’t want to get blindsided, and find ourselves putting out fires and reacting to it."

God forbid we have to deal with a pandemic, but if we do, let’s be ready.

Harry S. Dennis III is the president of The Executive Committee (TEC) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at (262) 821-3340.

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