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It is time to dust off your pandemic preparedness and response plan in order to prepare your organization for the impact on business operations due to an outbreak of the Ebola virus. Acknowledging that this is a very scary illness, your job is not to incite more fear than already exists. Your job is to develop a sound and thoughtful preparedness and response plan to such an outbreak so that the workforce and customers have confidence that you are in control of the workplace impact and that you can continue business operations. Gartner provides the following best practices to all organizations to help them take appropriate actions.
- Assume a very high fear factor in the workforce. Because of the severity of the symptoms and the very high death rate of the Ebola virus, people will be much more afraid to be in contact with others than they were with the influenza virus, even though the latter is a much more easily contractible illness because it is an airborne-spread virus. According to the CDC, the Ebola virus is not spread through the air.
- Assume an initial very high rate of worker absenteeism in the business location that has had the confirmed Ebola virus infected patient due to the fear of becoming infected themselves.
- Due to the higher than normal absenteeism rate, assume a very quick impact to your business operations, not the rolling kind as with the influenza virus. However, due to the short incubation period of 2 to 21 days, business operations should return to normal rather quickly.
- Assume that your crisis management team will conduct its operations virtually due to the social distancing practices put in place once a confirmed Ebola virus incident has occurred in your business location.
- Shelter-in-place policies do not apply – no worker should be isolated at the work location during the 2-21 day incubation period. And obviously, a worker infected with the Ebola virus should be under medical care.
- Monitor the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html), the WHO (www.who.int) and state and local public health services for Ebola virus medical advice. See the Resources section below for a list of references.
- Contact your local office of emergency management and public health services to understand the protocol they use for notifying employers of an infected worker and for on-going communications and interaction. Questions to ask include: How do we find out that we have a worker with the Ebola virus? How do we handle a worker who is displaying Ebola virus-like symptoms at the workplace? How do we handle communications with our workforce in regards to informing them of an Ebola virus incident at the workplace?
- Review and update your pandemic preparedness and response plan to ensure that the information is up-to-date. Focus on changes in contact information and business operations since the last review and update. Especially important to review are your absenteeism trigger points that indicate when and if you need to shut down operations. Also, review your social distancing procedures to determine how you can reduce face-to-face interactions.
- Review and update your crisis management team and plan to ensure that the information is up-to-date. Determine who will be the primary and secondary crisis commander for your response efforts at each of your business locations.
- Educate the workforce on the basics of the Ebola virus (what it is, how it is spread, the symptoms et al), infection prevention personal hygiene practices and what to do if the worker starts exhibiting Ebola virus symptoms. The WHO has a set of advice for travelers entitled “Template message for travellers” that can be leveraged for your educational messaging. This template is in their document entitled “Travel and transport risk assessment: Interim guidance for public health authorities and the transport sector, September 2014”.
In addition, medical experts are emphasizing the need for a flu vaccine this year. Flu symptoms are very similar to the early Ebola virus symptoms, so ensuring you are protected from the flu means that 1) the worker knows that their symptoms are likely not flu-related and therefore obtain immediate medical action, and 2) emergency rooms are not overwhelmed with visits due to more easily preventable illnesses.
- Meet with the cleaning service used for each of your business locations to ensure that they are following strong personal hygiene practices of their workers as well as ensuring they are managing your organization’s procedures for supplying and cleaning workspaces and bathrooms. Put on retainer a cleaning service for each of your business locations that are experienced in handling medical hazardous waste if you have an Ebola virus outbreak.
- Procure three to six months’ worth of personal hygiene and cleaning supplies to meet the needs of your workforce in each business location.
- Due to the high absenteeism and social distancing procedures that may be put in place, review your work-at-home/telework policy and procedures. Test your VPN capacity for at least 60% of employees working from home.
- Meet with your property management company to know what their procedures are for managing worker and visitor traffic in and out each of your business locations. Ensure your procedures are not in conflict with theirs.
- Talk with your travel department or outside travel agency to update your travel policy and practices and your travel risk management program (e.g. would your organization need to be involved in the evacuation of a worker infected with the Ebola virus from a risky/remote location to a safe/more medically advanced location). Protections that you might put in place include workforce travel restrictions to highly risky locations as well as traveller preparedness and response procedures. Again, refer to the WHO web site dedicated to Ebola-related travel advisories and their document entitled “Travel and transport risk assessment: Interim guidance for public health authorities and the transport sector, September 2014”: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/diseases/ebola.
- Like other pandemics when social distancing and isolation/quarantine policies are in place, data center/command center operations may not be able to be maintained if they depend on people’s physical presence. Therefore, remote control management practices should be implemented and tested. This is true also for IT disaster recovery: if physical presence is required, you may not be able to recover during the virus outbreak. All recovery exercises should be rescheduled.
- Meet with your mission-critical suppliers to ensure that they have pandemic preparedness and response and crisis management plans in place. Knowing when and how they will contact your organization of their own Ebola virus outbreak and how that impacts your ability to deliver your products/services is critical to maintaining your business operations and meeting your business obligations.
- Review your HR policies regarding how your organization will handle compensation and benefits to the workforce during such a crisis. Refer to the Gartner research note “Toolkit: Update Your Human Resources Policies for BCM Considerations” for detailed advice on this topic.
- Talk to your insurance carrier(s) to determine if your business interruption insurance policy(ies) will pay for an Ebola virus outbreak in each of your business locations. You might decide to enhance coverage if possible.
- Test your pandemic preparedness and response plan to ensure that all team members know their role and responsibilities and all workers know the policies and procedures if you need to invoke response procedures in the plan due to an Ebola virus outbreak.
- Test your crisis management plan to ensure that all team members know their role and responsibilities if you need to invoke the plan.
- Craft crisis communications messages now in preparation for Ebola virus messaging, including: Ebola virus education training, infection prevention personal hygiene best practices, Ebola infection instances and response procedures found in your workplace, Ebola workforce impact (e.g. location closings, social distancing procedures put in place, work-at-home procedures enhanced et al) and open for business messages.
- Test your EMNS service now to ensure that you have the most up-to-date information for all contacts, and to train the workforce on the use of the service to communicate business operations information.
- If possible, and not in conflict with Privacy regulations (consult with your HR and Legal departments to determine what is possible), track internal incidents of workers out sick, workers out due to fear of infection, workers out taking care of sick family members/those under their care, workers who have traveled to Ebola virus risky locations, workers who have been in close proximity to people with confirmed cases of Ebola virus infection. Increases in these data points can trigger an absenteeism rate for which you need to take action.
- Monitor for Ebola virus-triggered local quarantines, school closings and food and fuel shortages in the area of each of your business locations to determine the level of absenteeism at those sites.
- Continually monitor your pandemic preparedness and response plan procedures and public health announcements to ensure you can move quickly when needed.
by Roberta Witty, Carl Claunch, John Morency, Werner Zurcher
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