the H1N1 Experience
arlier this year, as reports spread around the Regardless of their sources, most risks can be
Besse and world about the potential impact of the anticipated, planned for and managed. However,
Jackson Harrell H1N1 virus, many wondered, “How serious some risks cannot be prevented from occurring.
will it be?”; “How many will become ill or die?”; They include:
“Will my kid’s school close?”; “Will it really be as •medical emergencies (e.g., SARS, N5N1, H1N1);
bad as they say?” •fires or explosions;
Smart business leaders also asked, “Is our com- •natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes,
A pandemic pany ready for this?”; “What does being ready real- tornados, tsunamis);
ly mean?”; “How can I tell if we’re ready?”; “How •HazMat spills or biochemical releases;
is a serious will we function if 50%, 25% or even 10% of our •security threats (e.g., workplace/school vio-
threat. It is a employees simultaneously cannot report to work?” lence, terrorism).
From an organizational preparedness point of The good news is that with the proper planning,
marathon, not view, H1N1 provides an opportunity to address a company can prevent these threats from turning
short-term planning for dealing with a flu outbreak into major crises.
a sprint. And or another epidemic, as well as to address general
it will put crisis and emergency planning. Planning for The Big One
Crisis preparedness planning is often limited to
any disaster Is Your Organization Prepared? what an organization perceives as “the big one”—a
There is nothing quite like the threat of a flu pan- significant event seen as highly likely to damage
preparedness demic to put a disaster preparedness and business the organization. However, it is hard to tell in
and business continuity plan to the test. A pandemic is a serious advance which threat is the big one. An organiza-
threat. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It also allows tion may be better served by taking a broader
continuity sufficient lead time to pull a crisis plan off the shelf approach to managing scenarios that hold crisis
(if one exists), dust it off, test the company’s readi- potential. The more prudent approach is to conduct
plan to ness, and update or fill any gaps. an organized risk assessment to identify and pre-
the test. Alternately, if such a plan does not already exist, a pare for plausible risks and risk categories that may
crisis like H1N1 forces the creation of one. It has been affect an organization. The wise company invests in
almost a year since H1N1 was first detected, and the future by preparing for prioritized, plausible
medical authorities are reporting that the virus may crisis risks as if each could represent the big one.
remain a threat for some time. Even if the H1N1 virus is one such risk. It requires business-
illness has not already affected your organ- es, governments, schools, churches and a whole
ization, the threat of serious impact to your host of organizations to plan calmly, before the cri-
sis and all its pressures arrive. If it turns out that
PHOTO BY C.S. GOLDSMITH AND A. BALISH/CDC
operations will continue.
H1N1 is not the big one, the planning will not have
Why Is Crisis been wasted. As the past few years have proven, a
Preparedness Important? new significant threat is just around the corner.
A major disruption can devastate any H1N1 influenza, like other potential large-scale
business. A flu pandemic—just like a hur- crises, has unique challenges and characteristics.
ricane, a fire or any of a hundred other Certainly, other recent threats such as SARS and
disasters—can literally empty buildings. avian flu, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, fires in Cali-
Organizations must consider what per- fornia, hurricanes such as Katrina, anthrax and other
centage of their employees can be absent bio-terror threats have posed unique challenges and
without operations being affected. raised awareness levels, at least for a time.
The stakes are high. Some businesses
simply do not recover and reopen after a Conduct a Risk Assessment
From an organiza- major disaster. An organization with a plan in place The next potential crisis, whatever it may be, is
tional preparedness is better positioned to limit the damage and is more lurking just around the corner. Regardless of an
point of view, H1N1 likely to emerge in good condition. An organization organization’s nature, these risks can be identified,
provides an oppor- that lacks a sound, recently tested plan is at a much assessed and prioritized. From there, plans should
tunity to address greater risk. The critical question is which company be developed.
short-term planning is yours. A blended, integrated approach to risk, emer-
for dealing with a gency, crisis and disaster planning is preferred. The
flu outbreak or It’s Bigger Than the Flu best plans combine operations, communications
another epidemic, as Learning whether a company has a plan will and security into one comprehensive, integrated
well as to address generally indicate how well prepared that company plan. At the core of such planning is an enterprise
general crisis and is for any crisis, disaster or other emergency, and risk assessment to identify the organization’s expo-
emergency planning. has implications well beyond H1N1. sure to crisis, emergency and disaster risks. The
36 PROFESSIONAL SAFETY NOVEMBER 2009 www.asse.org
6) Add a special button to the com-
pany web page so employees can easily
access up-to-date, accurate flu informa-
tion (e.g., www.cdc.gov/widgets).
PHOTO BY JAMES GATHANY/CDC
7) Purchase supplies in advance
(e.g., hand sanitizers, disinfectant
wipes) to avoid shortages.
In greater detail, a company should
help employees and other stakeholders
prepare to avoid the virus or minimize
its impact. For example, a business can
communicate the following seemingly
simple reminders to employees:
Encourage workers to obtain a seasonal influenza vaccine, if it is appro- •Wash your hands and use hand This evolving
priate for them according to CDC recommendations (www.cdc.gov/flu/ sanitizers often.
protect/keyfacts.htm). This helps to prevent illness from seasonal influen-
•Rethink the handshake greeting.
za strains that may circulate at the same time as the H1N1 flu.
•Sneeze into a sleeve, a tissue or tion should
simple act of assessing risk exposures arms man- something other than hands.
agement to take steps to prevent or minimize dam- •Stay at home and keep children home if ill stimulate
age to the organization. (policies must not punish this). companies
•Get a seasonal flu shot and H1N1 shots, if
What’s a Company to Do? and other
appropriate and available.
Managers face vexing decisions about when and
Businesses can also consider adopting special
how to prepare for potential crises. What some consid-
work practices during critical times. These might
er an investment that protects against future losses,
others consider a current expense that with luck can be
include the following: to take a
•Develop work-from-home strategies to reduce
delayed or avoided. The former invest limited funds in
employee contact. broader look
the short run to avoid larger costs in the long run. The
•Adapt technology to facilitate working from at their plan-
latter save limited funds in the short run, risking larger
home, while maintaining IT security.
costs in the long run if the crisis emerges. ning for other
•Reduce travel and increase teleconferencing/
An organization that invests in preparation has a
better chance of minimizing the effect of potential
•Set up triggers and procedures for starting (and crises, emer-
disasters, or of preventing them altogether. Plan-
ning actually provides managers with more control
ending) the response plan and adopt workplace gencies and
monitoring plans to provide trip-wire indicators.
over an organization’s future. Failure to plan cedes
•Develop alternate work schedules and cross- disasters.
control of these risky situations and puts managers
train employees so all critical tasks can continue in
and the organization at the mercy of fate.
the event of mass workplace illness.
Threats such as H1N1 remind an organization to
•Create special ways to communicate with
conduct a measured assessment across the risk
employees and suppliers (perhaps via social media)
landscape, identifying where operations are vulner-
and train employees in its use.
able. Planning can then proceed, allowing the
This evolving H1N1 situation should stimulate
organization to develop carefully crafted, thought-
companies and other organizations to take a broader
fully integrated plans to address H1N1 or any other
look at their planning for other crises, emergencies
eventualities that could disrupt normal organiza-
and disasters. Conducting regular risk assessments
tional operations and performance.
that combine operations, communications and
Planning for a Pandemic security, empowers the organization to function
The best plans for dealing with H1N1 or similar well during a crisis and emerge in good, more
pandemics will integrate operations and communica- resilient condition.
tions. At a minimum, plans ensure smooth continuity
of operations and communicate with employees and References
stakeholders. CDC. (2009). Preparing for the flu: A communication toolkit
Following are steps a company can take to mini- for businesses and employers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services, Author. Retrieved from http://
mize the effect of an H1N1 outbreak on operations www.flu.gov/professional/business/toolkit.html.
1) Review your current flu plan or develop a
new one. Test key components, share the plan with William Besse is executive director of Andrews Interna-
employees and explain related policies, options, tional’s consulting and investigations division. In this posi-
pay and benefits. tion, his functions encompass strategic planning relating to
consulting and investigations. Besse has three decades of expe-
2) Establish lines of communication with state
rience developing, managing and implementing international
and local health departments. security and risk mitigation programs.
3) Review sick-leave policies. Consider adjusting
them based on public health recommendations and Jackson Harrell, Ph.D., is president and founder of The
make sure employees are fully aware of the policies. Harrell Group, a strategic communications firm that counsels
4) Consider providing flexible leave policies that organizations on a wide range of communications functions.
For more than 25 years, Harrell has focused on helping com-
allow workers to stay home and care for sick house-
panies identify and plan for evolving risks and opportunities.
hold members, or stay home if schools close. Learn about the companies’ strategic partnership to provide
5) Share best practices with other area business- fully integrated risk mitigation, crisis planning, avoidance
es. Work with vendors, chambers of commerce and and response services at www.andrewsinternational.com/
other business organizations. newsevents/releases/nr_harrell.html.
www.asse.org NOVEMBER 2009 PROFESSIONAL SAFETY 37