How will maintenance get done with a flu outbreak?

We all hope that a pandemic will not affect us, however we need to be ready should it arrive.

BY SIMON FRIDLYAND

The flu season is upon us. Scary headlines about H1N1 -- the swine flu virus -- appear in the media almost daily. The infectious pandemic obviously should be taken seriously, because it could affect our health, our employment and a company's business performance. In order to deal with the issue, we need to understand the basics and develop a plan of action.
A pandemic occurs when a new strain of virus spreads around the globe, infecting many people at once. The reason it spreads quickly is because it is a new virus and people have no immunity to it. The World Health Organization suggests that the H1N1 flu virus has the potential to infect 25% to 30% of the world’s population.
A pandemic like this may:
• arise rapidly and spread quickly
• make people very ill; many likely will die
• generate unprecedented levels of fear and panic
• occur in several waves, each lasting for several months
• require government, businesses and many community agencies to be involved in a whole-of-society response
• result in health care services not being able to provide direct care in some cases, and
• result in very high staff absence rates for some periods during the pandemic.
With these factors in mind, your company will need to develop contingency plans to manage the impact of a potential pandemic on its business.
The contingency plan should consist of the following points:
1. Identify your business' core people and skills.
What are your business’ core activities, who carries out the essential roles and what skills do they need? How might your business operations be affected by a 30% to 50% drop in staff at the peak of the pandemic? Will you be able to maintain your equipment and keep your machines running?
2. Consider the effects of supply shortages on operations.
Are there any products or external suppliers that are essential to your business functions? What would you do if you couldn’t access these products or people? Can items you need be stockpiled or sourced from another supplier, distributor or buying group?
3. Plan for staff absences.
Arrange for staff to learn other peoples’ jobs, especially the important ones, so that there are a number of people who can back-fill the positions of those who are away.
4. Consider human resource issues.
Update leave policies (e.g. sick leave, carergivers leave and other provisions) and advise staff about staying away from work if they are ill during a pandemic. Concern about lost wages might make it difficult for some to stay at home, even if they are sick. Staff might also need to stay home to care for family, particularly children.
5. Decide if your business will stay open or will close in a pandemic.
Remember, if you provide an essential service for community functioning, you should make every effort to stay open. Businesses that are considering a temporary closure should examine their insurance policies (especially Loss of Profit insurance) and consult with their insurers before making a decision to close during a pandemic.
If you are not a key service provider, you will need to consider at what point you might close temporarily. If you do stay open, your business planning might include consideration of employee risks and your duty of care as an employer. Will you need to rely more on online or phone services? Does your business have the necessary infrastructure to cope? You should also consider that there may be interruptions to services such as power or telecommunications.
6. Encourage good personal hygiene practices.
You don’t need to wait for a pandemic to practice good hygiene that could reduce the spread of infection. Encourage proper coughing/sneezing etiquette and ensure you have a good supply of hand-washing products in stock. Your business premises, especially hard surfaces such as doorknobs, sinks, railings and counters, should be cleaned regularly.
You should also ensure you have a well-ventilated work area and check that your air conditioning is serviced regularly.
7. Understand social distancing measures.
In a pandemic, staff should be encouraged to minimize contact with others. This might include restrictions on congregating in staff rooms. During shift changeovers, you could have one shift leave before a new shift begins.
8. Communicate your plans to staff and customers.
In the lead up to and during a pandemic, your staff will likely be concerned about and be preoccupied with the well-being of their families. Their commitment to their jobs or their ability to work may not be their major concern. Staff and customers will feel reassured by your pandemic planning activities and will be pleased to know you are thinking ahead, and are preparing as best you can.
Tell your staff about your expectations of them during a pandemic (i.e. to report any illness and not to come to work if ill).
9. Look at the financial implications.
Think about how a downturn in business might affect your business’ cash flow. Do you have some cash reserves? Remember that credit facilities might be limited.
10. Test your plan and know when to use it.
Once you have developed your continuity plan, it is worthwhile to test it. This way you’ll know how well it might work in a real situation and if you have overlooked anything. Decide when you will activate your plan.
In order to minimize the spread of the virus, special attention must be paid to the following points:

Hand washing
• Adopt good hand washing/hand hygiene practices, particularly after coughing, sneezing or using tissues.
• Immediately dispose of used tissues.
• Keep hands away from the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth.
• Ensure that adequate supplies of hand hygiene products are available. (This is a high planning priority as there may be interruption to the supply or shortages of soap and hand towels).
• Have a supply of tissues available and provide no-touch receptacles for used tissue disposal.
• Consider having conveniently located dispensers of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Provide soap and disposable towels for hand washing near all sinks.

Coughing and sneezing
• Cover the nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing (preferably with a disposable, single-use tissue).
• Dispose of tissues in the nearest waste receptacle after use. Do not store them in your pockets.
• Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or touching used tissues.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)
• The most commonly used PPE equipment would be masks and protective barriers. Disposable masks help prevent exposing others to respiratory secretions of those who are ill. Dispose of any mask as soon as it becomes moist or after any cough or sneeze, and wash the hands thoroughly.
• Protective barriers in the form of Plexiglas or glass may provide useful protection for people such as front counter staff, whose duties require them to have frequent face-to-face contact with members of the public and where social distancing is not practical.

Social distance
• Businesses should use the concept of social distancing at work. If possible, teams should split into different work locations to allow for a backup team and to help prevent cross-infection.
• Avoid face-to-face meetings, even at work (use telephone conferencing).
• Avoid public transportation.
• Bring and eat lunch at your desk; don't use the cafeteria or at least use staggered lunch times to avoid large numbers of people congregating.
• Cancel non-essential training sessions and meetings.
• Shift changes should be managed in a way to prevent cross-contamination, i.e. provide an interval before the next shift begins; this helps reduce the number of people meeting in the locker room, etc., and provides an opportunity to ventilate the work site during the shift change (windows opened, increased HVAC).
• If face-to-face meetings are absolutely necessary, try to use a large room and sit at least three feet apart.

Cleaning
• There's no doubt that cleaning should be enhanced during a pandemic.
• Disinfecting solutions should be applied to all common area surfaces, such as counters, railings, sinks, shared telephones, shared computer keyboards and toilet bowls.

HVAC
• HVAC systems should continue running, but try to increase the amount of outside air and reduce recirculation. There is no clinical indication for cleaning air filters during a flu pandemic. Since the spread of flu is still primarily by droplets, thus is not airborne, filters will not make a difference. Additionally, most industrial HVAC filters will not filter virus-sized organisms anyway.
We all hope that a pandemic will not affect us, however we need to be ready should it arrive.

Simon Fridlyand, P.Eng., is president of S.A.F.E. Engineering Inc., a Toronto-based company specializing in industrial health and safety issues and PSR compliance. He can be reached 416-447-9757 or simonf@safeengineering.ca. For more information, visit www.safeengineering.ca.

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