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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2006

Is Your Company Ready for Pandemic Influenza?

by Gary Ades, Phd

Preparing for a crisis is the area that I would like to discuss in this first article. There are three stages at which crises can be addressed: Before, during and after a situation occurs.

Experience has shown that much of the emphasis is placed on addressing a situation that has already occurred. It is better to effectively plan to avert such a problem or to address it in such a manner that its effects are minimized with customers, consumers, shareholders and the maintenance of the equity in the brand.

Those who have been involved in crisis situations, whether they were product recalls, animal health, bad publicity, tampering, etc., recognize that in times of crisis, resources are not spared. However, when you want to plan for a crisis and it involves expenditures of both human and monetary resources, there is often a push back. This is not to say that people are not concerned, it just means that they are weighing the benefits of the “insurance policy” that preparedness planning affords. One major situation can literally destroy a company. Destruction may not only be monetary in nature, but it can also so severely affect the morale of those within a company that it hampers their ability to make decisions and move forward.

In this article, I will not be discussing plans that processors and food service operators have developed to address the concerns that their customers and employees might have regarding the safety of poultry products should high pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) infect flocks in the U.S. I will be discussing what planning should be done in the eventuality that the virus mutates in such a fashion that it is easily spread from human to human, therefore leading to a Pandemic Influenza situation. The World Health Organization (WHO) has divided the Pandemic Situation into four periods with six phases (see Figure 1).

We are presently at Pandemic Alert Phase 3; human infections with a new subtype, but no human-to-human spread or, at most, rare instances of spread to a close contact. Even though we are only at Phase 3, we must be prepared if the virus does become easily transmissible between humans.

If we wait, it will be too late to minimize the impact of such an occurrence.

So, how should companies begin to prepare?

One of the ways that companies have chosen is to utilize the “Business Pandemic Influenza Checklist” that has been prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for large businesses. It can be found on the Home Page of the web site, www.pandemicflu.gov. This checklist provides an excellent starting point for all sizes of businesses.

The Checklist is Divided into the Following Six Areas:

  • Plan for the impact of a pandemic on your business;
  • Plan for the impact of a pandemic on your employees and customers;
  • Establish policies to be implemented during a pandemic;
  • Allocate resources to protect your employees and customers during a pandemic;
  • Communicate to and educate your employees;

Coordinate with external organizations and help your community. Each of these areas contains specific issues that should be addressed. These issues will have to be modified to meet your company’s specific organizational structure and needs and should be a cross-functional activity involving representatives from the following groups within your organization: Senior management, human resources, information technology, purchasing, distribution, operations, risk management, food service staff and medical advisors.

While many smaller companies do not have individual departments for each of these functions, each of these areas will have to be addressed. This activity will take time and involve numerous meetings. Simple things such as up-to-date emergency contact lists for key employees and more difficult things such as: how to handle an increased number of medical claims; what type of ancillary contractors need to be identified and trained; how you will keep your customers informed and supplied; what changes may be needed to your sick leave policies for both hourly as well as salaried employees; actions regarding your relationships with the state and local heath departments in which your facilities are located, among others, will need to be addressed.

You will also find that things that are often taken for granted, such as child care, can be overlooked. If there is a pandemic and child care workers are affected, will your employees be able to come to work if they don’t have anywhere to leave their children? Remember, if a pandemic does occur, outbreaks are expected to occur simultaneously, preventing shifts in resources that commonly occur in other natural disasters and illnesses will come in waves.

As with any crisis management program, the program should be tested before its use. A tabletop drill is the method of choice for this testing. It allows key players, from participating groups within a company, to gather in face-to-face, round-table settings and talk through expected actions for a pandemic influenza emergency scenario. This allows for evaluation of the plans and procedures and resolves questions of coordination and responsibility. Tabletop drills are typically informal, and a moderator facilitates discussion among participants. The moderator should be someone who understands what the company has planned and who can effectively initiate and guide discussions.

Planning for a crisis should not be viewed as doom and gloom but rather as a prudent way to help your company, your employees, your customers and your community safely through a time of crisis. –FQ

Gary Ades, Ph.D., is senior vice president for EHA Consulting Group, Inc. (www.ehagroup.com) a company that specializes in helping companies before, during and after a crisis. He can be reached at 479-254-9026 or gades@ehagroup.com.

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