As the swine flu pandemic continues to spread across Australia, with 149 cases now confirmed, businesses are being urged to put workplace contingency plans into action.
A massive 96 cases were confirmed in Victoria last night with over 3,000 people in quarantine, as schools and even workplaces in the tourism sector have begun to shut down.
The Federal Government has updated its pandemic contingency plans, warning businesses to take action for a Phase 5 pandemic as it says 20% of Victoria’s population could become infected with the virus.
It has also purchased 10 million units of a swine flu vaccine, and 1.6 million units of antiviral medications.
The Government’s recommendations for businesses on how to deal with a Phase 5 outbreak include:
• Keep in touch with the WHO and other health departments on the latest information of the virus.
• Give staff members regular briefings on the updated conditions of the outbreak.
• Arrange for as many staff as possible to work from home.
• Eliminate non-essential business travel, and seek other forms of non face-to-face communication.
• Introduce restrictions on customer entry into the workplace.
• Possibly introduce measures to close offices in affected areas.
• Purchase a number of consumables for an extended period of time, including heath and cleaning products.
• Prepare for the virus to enter Phase 6, (the highest threat level), by preparing rosters for workers and even arrange childcare if necessary.
• Give employees information about at-home care if they become ill.
• Keep in touch with Government departments on how the outbreak develops.
The recommendations also include having nonessential overseas staff return to Australia and maintain close contact with overseas staff in affected areas.
If the outbreak is classed as a Phase 6 pandemic, the highest threat level possible, the Government recommends businesses to have non-essential staff take leave, limit meetings and group activities and encourage home quarantine if staff members feel ill.
Founder and principal consultant of risk management firm Continuity Planners Australia, Graham Nisbet, says that sensible businesses will already be working on putting contingency plans in place.
He says businesses should be implementing the three C’s – communication, assessing their critical points and cross-skilling staff. .
“Firstly they should be communicating, giving information on the health threat. Talking to people about working from home, clearly that’s a very good idea then they don’t come face-to-face with other workers.
“Staff want to know how the businesses will keep them safe. Separate workers by greater distances, use cleaning products and so on. They will also want to know about whether they get sick, will it be sick leave, or annual leave, or whatever if they get sick. As long as employers are clear about what the arrangements are that’s fine.”
Nisbet says the second major point is pinpointing the critical points of the business. “Say 50% of our staff calls in sick – what are the critical things we have to do to keep the business running?
“The third C is cross-skilling. Who can do other people’s jobs and have they done it before? Sensible companies will think about that now. You should be having Fred sit with Bill in shipping for a day to sit up on current processes,” he says.
“These are good human resources practices at any time, but they become critical right now.”
No Australians have yet died from the virus and those in quarantine are only displaying mild symptoms, but health experts fear the flu may mutate and become even more deadly. It has already infected 13,000 people worldwide with 92 deaths.