DCN ARCHIVES

April 24, 2007

Health & Safety

Making plans for a pandemic

It's not a matter of 'if', but 'when' it will strike

TORONTO

Society is becoming increasingly dependent on complex supply and transportation chains. A simple road closure or a protracted black-out can throw an entire city into chaos. Imagine, instead, a widespread flu that could take out one-third of the workforce inside of a week.

“Medical professionals have lost the word ‘if,’” says Scott Hood, principal consultant, Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA).

LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA/PA-025025

Canadian workers wearing masks during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic.

“They’re now saying ‘when.’” A historic example: the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50,000 Canadians, striking healthy, younger citizens and paralyzing commerce.

A likely modern-day scenario involves a flu-like illness travelling like wildfire, taking out as many as one-third of the population who will be laid up for as long as eight weeks. Workers who are sick simply stay home. Schools close. Workers who are well, may stay home to take care of loved ones. After the first wave of illness, another strikes, taking out a second wave of victims.

Hood notes that in the aftermath of New York’s 9/11 attacks, many emergency service workers who were assigned to assist in the recovery left their posts and went home to look after their families. Almost 60 per cent of Canadian workers say they would simply not report to work if a co-worker were to come down with avian flu.

“A survey of 520 senior executives by Leger Marketing reveals that 72 per cent of them have no plan to deal with disasters, and most of those who have plans don’t address pandemic situations,” says Hood. “These businesses require the establishment of an organized system of roles, responsibilities and standard operating procedures used to manage and direct emergency operations. If properly implemented, it will allow a company to limp along through the worst of the pandemic.”

A typical Incident Command System (ICS) plan assigns those who are still healthy to five functions: command, operations, planning and intelligence, logistics and finance. The people assigned to these functions may not be traditionally assigned to those roles. Hood says that most workplaces are so specialized that there’s next to no duplication of skills.

“There’s little cross-training,” says Hood. “What happens if both people who issue pay cheques are ill at the same time?

How many managers know how to fire up the company’s computer system?

Employees will need to know how to take on functions they’re not normally associated with.”

A business also has to decide which services it must shut down and what aspects will continue operating while the pandemic is running its course. Additionally, there’s often no plan in place to ramp business back up in an organized fashion when employees begin to return.

Businesses may also be wise to write considerations for a pandemic or service disruption into their contracts.

“You’ve missed a deadline or an important contract milestone,” says Hood. “What do your contracts say about not delivering to your clients on time? What constitutes a reasonable delay? We need to talk to suppliers and customers beforehand to plan for these eventualities.”

Hood spoke at the IAPA’s annual conference in Toronto last Tuesday.

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