Could you cope with a pandemic?

In the wake of the swine flu scare, businesses are evaluating the potential impact on operations should a virus cause a massive disruption. Control Risks, an international business risk consultancy, has issued a list of ten questions companies can use to determine just how prepared they are for a pandemic emergency.

The challenge of preparing for a pandemic is different from any other scenario, said Brian Kaye, Vice President and National Practice Leader for Business Continuity at Control Risks. It is a unique effort and must take into account variables such as the business model of the firm, the geography in which a company operates, and most importantly the culture of the organization.

While many organizations may have cut back on preparedness spending in the current challenging economic climate, Kaye stressed there are a number of specific areas companies should consider to minimize the risk exposure of their businesses and people.

There are measures that can help corporations and guarantee the continuity of their operations, he said. For companies with outdated or non-existent pandemic preparedness plans, the first step is for the executive management team to set guiding principles for the coming weeks and months which address duty of care responsibility – and they must communicate those decisions, as appropriate, to the workforce. There are also policies and protocols that, once put in place, can have a strong impact in countering a pandemic emergency. Control Risks encourages organizations to take stock of the following ten questions:

1. Have you defined reliable information sources that you can monitor for situational awareness in the event of an influenza pandemic? “It is essential to ensure that the information sources you choose are reliable, appreciate nuances and bring a degree of expertise and analysis to these types of events,” said Kaye. The information gathered from these sources will be critical for your decision-making process and you want to make decisions based on the best possible knowledge available.

2. Has top management documented a set of guiding principles? The following should be outlined within them:

• The commitments the firm will make to protect employees and ensure duty of care;

• The types of programs the firm will keep in place;

• The budget available for planning;

• The person responsible for implementing these programs at corporate headquarters. When considering guiding principles during a pandemic, there is a variety of options companies can take, said Kaye. It is important for firms to confirm their guiding principles early on, in order to guide the planning effort.

3. Does the firm have in place a robust Crisis Management and Communications program that will allow executives to make key decisions on a timely basis and communicate messages to both internal and external stakeholders? Influenza pandemic is a prolonged event and will require management not only to assess changing conditions and make decisions in response to them, but also to accurately and effectively communicate these decisions to all necessary parties, said Kaye. Pandemic crisis management requires a completely different perspective, analysis and action-plan than natural disaster crisis planning. The question in pandemic planning, according to Kaye, is not how do we pick up the pieces; rather it is how do we live with this situation over the course of the next 18 months?

4. Is there a Business Continuity program in place that documents key products and services that will receive prioritized attention during a time of reduced staff availability? If only 50 per cent of staff is in the workplace on a particular day, which business activities will be conducted and which will be deferred?

“Traditional business continuity is based on putting people back to work after sustaining a loss to a building, equipment or other operational systems,” said Kaye. “Pandemic business continuity planning completely turns this concept on its ear; the building is intact, the systems are functioning but there is a shortage of people. In this scenario, you will have to establish priorities for your reduced workforce and you will have to consider what functions are not absolutely essential to your organization at that moment and defer these functions.”

5. Has the firm implemented a robust employee health program that will guide safe workplace protocols, such as facility access, social distancing, and surface cleaning? In the event of an influenza pandemic, the goal is preventing the virus from spreading, said Kaye. This prevention is applicable to public systems, such as trains and buses, as well as to households and businesses. Both surface cleaning and social distancing are effective and can have a major impact. The belief is that people are universally susceptible to influenza pandemics and we must rely on these approaches to limit contagion.

6. Are there documented Human Resources procedures that outline actions employees should take if they become ill or have family care issues? Just as with any other company initiative, people need to know what to do, said Kaye. It sounds so simple, but if you don’t provide clear instruction regarding sick leave, employees will show up to work sick and ask whether they should stay or go. You need to remove any uncertainty in the mind of the employee so that they can stay home and get better without risk of spreading the virus.

7. Are key strategies for remote connectivity of workers backed up by actual IT capabilities in terms of VPN bandwidth and hardware availability? “The go-to solution for many companies during a pandemic is simply to have employees work from home,” said Kaye. However, more often than not, there are IT limitations to this strategy, he noted. You need to be realistic and ask whether your existing IT infrastructure can support your entire workforce working from home at once. Business plans need to take into account how the IT systems work.

8. Has the firm prepared guidance for expatriate employees and travelers? Does the firm have the ability to re-create travel patterns for employees, to support investigation into risk exposure? The need for travel policies is clear, but you have to determine when or even if you will restrict all non-essential travel for employees. When considering expatriate employees, you must decide what care you will offer them and at what point you will remove them from their current location.

“The issue of re-creating travel patterns was a lesson learned from SARS,” noted Kaye. “Specific points of exposure were identified, allowing us to assess whether an employee could have been exposed. If you have the ability to retain employees travel history and re-create their travel pattern, you have the potential to pinpoint their point of exposure.”

9. Has the firm discussed its pandemic preparedness efforts with key vendors, suppliers and other business partners? “Even the strongest in-house pandemic preparedness program can be rendered worthless if the company has a dependence on a third-party that is compromised,” said Kaye. “Of course, this rings true not only for manufacturers, but also for professional services providers. Companies with an outsourced IT call centre, for example, could be left without critical business functions if their outsourced operations are compromised.”

10. What is the firm’s position on the procurement and stockpiling of both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical protective measures?

“Anti-viral treatments are receiving so much attention right now that it is almost tempting to mistake them for a pandemic preparedness program,” said Kaye. “I can not stress enough that they are not one in the same.”

Control Risk advises clients to look back to guiding principles to determine whether they should procure either or both of these protective measures. “I highly recommend that firms not let the issue linger unaddressed and I don’t believe anybody should make a definitive pronouncement. The decisions on both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical protective measures will vary firm to firm.

– Joan Goodchild

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