Apr 30, 2009

U.S. Declares “Health Emergency” Regarding Outbreak of Swine Influenza A

The United States has declared a “health emergency” regarding an outbreak of swine influenza A (H1N1). As of Thursday, April 30, 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) reported a total of 109 confirmed cases, including one death, in 11 states. One case of the flu has been confirmed in Georgia. On April 29, 2009, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert to level 5, its second highest level, after the virus spread further throughout the United States and deeper into Europe.

Although the CDC is encouraging people not to panic, now is the time for employers to remind their employees of basic contamination avoidance steps and to assess their policies and level of preparedness should a pandemic develop.

There are basic, everyday actions that employers should remind their employees to take to stay healthy:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

To reduce the impact of a pandemic on a Company’s operations, employees, customers and the general public, employers should consider forming a pandemic team to establish an emergency communication plan and processes for tracking and communicating business and employee status. The Company or pandemic team should:

  • Request that employees report to their supervisors promptly if they are experiencing any flu-like symptoms. Supervisors should be instructed to notify Human Resources upon such a report.
  • Review the Company’s leave and telecommuting policies and adjust them, if necessary, to encourage employees to stay at home if they experience flu-like symptoms.
  • Implement increased prevention and transmission precautions by increasing cleaning protocols, disposal of trash, and reminding employees of the need to wash hands frequently.
  • Discontinue nonessential travel to Mexico and other locations the CDC identifies as having high illness transmission rates.
  • Determine methods for communicating effectively with employees.
  • Prepare facility shutdown check-lists.
  • Create a business continuity plan applicable to a pandemic. Such a plan should address long-term absenteeism rates, whether pivotal business functions can be maintained with minimal staff, and what portion(s) of the business functions can be performed remotely.
  • Educate management concerning employee communications, transmitting self-disclosed infection information from employees, sending employees home who want to stay at work, and communicating with employees too scared to report to work.
  • Review the websites of the CDC and the OSHA daily for updates on steps to take during the outbreak.

On April 28, 2009, OSHA placed on its website a special link on swine flu that references its “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic”. OSHA lists a number of measures to protect employees in the event of a flu pandemic. In addition, OSHA recommends that employers develop pandemic flu plans specifically tailored to the needs of their worksites. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC have also posted a helpful checklist for companies to use as they prepare for the impact of a possible swine flu outbreak on their premises.

For more information on implementing policies and procedures in your workforce to address potential health concerns, please contact your employment law counsel at Smith, Gambrell, & Russell, LLP.

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