| Winter 2006

Bird Flu: What it Means to Your Business
By David Wylie

Bird Flu: What it Means to Your Business

In the 1995 movie "Outbreak," scientists join forces to fight a deadly virus that is wiping out a small California town. In true Hollywood form, the film comes complete with plenty of gore, a romantic subplot, daring rescues and a government conspiracy. "Outbreak" is fictional, but the idea behind it is not that far-fetched.

Large-scale occurrences of deadly viruses, also known as pandemics, happen about twice a century.

Typhoid fever killed one quarter of the Athenian troops during the Peloponnesian War around 430 B.C. In the 1980s, AIDS emerged on the scene and developed into one of the most destructive pandemics in history.

Nowadays, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the president himself are urging schools, families, health care facilities and business owners to prepare for the latest deadly virus threatening humans: bird flu.

It is difficult to predict how severe a bird flu pandemic would be. What is clear is that the extent to which it would affect your business depends largely on the planning you do right now.

"A bird flu pandemic is far from certain, but if it does happen, it will spread quickly and leave little time to prepare," said Russ Oliver, president of Texas Mutual Insurance Company. "We created a pandemic plan that is flexible enough to address the unknowns a bird flu pandemic would present, and we encourage our policyholders to do the same."

Learn the basics
Bird flu is a contagious disease that usually infects chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and other birds. It has, however, been known to infect humans, mostly through contact with infected birds.

Unlike the seasonal flu most of us have had, there is no vaccine for bird flu. The WHO reports that since 2003, there have been over 250 reported cases of humans contracting bird flu in 10 African and Asian countries. Over half of them died.

Despite its high death rate, bird flu has not reached pandemic status. Pandemics must meet three criteria:

  1. They are new viruses to which humans have little or no immunity.
  2. They cause serious illness in humans.
  3. They spread easily from human to human.

Bird flu meets the first two criteria, but not the third. Given time and the right conditions, however, it could adapt until it easily passes among humans and becomes a full-blown pandemic. If it does, health officials predict it will take four to six months for vaccines to become available.

Educate your employees
Nearly 75 percent of the participants in a survey conducted by The Conference Board have a bird flu plan for their business, or they are working on one. Details of the plans vary, but most participants agree that employee education is critical.

Dennis Hof, safety coordinator at Texas Mutual Insurance Company, trained the company's management team in preparing for a bird flu pandemic. He taught them how the virus spreads, how it doesn't spread and what the company is doing to prepare. Management shares the information with employees during staff meetings.

"Speculation and inaccurate information would spread quickly during a pandemic," said Oliver. "The more facts you give your employees, the more likely they are to stay calm and follow your pandemic plan."

Oliver sends companywide, pandemic-related email updates. He uses credible sources, such as the WHO, to provide tips employees can use to protect themselves and their families. He also updates employees on the company's pandemic planning efforts. The company posts the updates, along with other pandemic information, on its employee intranet for easy access.

Outfit your facility
Our hands carry many of the germs we are exposed to every day. You can make a few simple adjustments to your facility to reduce the spread of illness and meet a pandemic head-on.

Texas Mutual Insurance Company installed touch-free toilets, water faucets, paper towel dispensers, trash cans and antimicrobial soap dispensers. The company also placed hand sanitizer in its break rooms and conference rooms.

"Simple, common sense things like cleanliness can save a lot of trips to the doctor's office," said Hof. "That means less absenteeism, lower health care expenses, more productivity and a happier, healthier workforce. These are pretty economical measures we're taking, and we think the investment is well worth it."

Identify critical functions and supplies
Health officials predict that a bird flu pandemic would spread in waves. The first wave would move across the globe in six to eight weeks, followed by possibly more severe waves lasting two to twelve weeks.

Employee absenteeism could reach 20 to 50 percent during each wave. Some employees may get sick, some may need time off to care for sick family members, and others may stay home for fear of becoming infected. Plan ahead by creating flexible work schedules and sick leave policies, setting up key employees to work from home, identifying your risks for the spread of disease, and cross-training your employees.

Cross training is especially important for functions that are critical to your operations. You cannot predict who will get sick, so train three or four workers to perform each critical function. Some employers are also pooling resources or planning to bring retired workers back to perform critical functions.

If a bird flu pandemic becomes a reality, no business will be immune. Schools, public transportation, hospitals, government offices and your vendors could be affected. As part of your pandemic plan, identify critical supplies and services and the vendors that provide them. Track how much of each supply you use, identify the shelf life and keep a backup supply on hand.

Lead by example
Texas Mutual Insurance Company loss prevention consultants promote the benefits of a total safety culture. In companies that have a total safety culture, everyone, from the president to front-line workers, shows a commitment to the safety program.

Apply the same principle to your bird flu plan. Management, especially supervisors who have daily contact with employees, should lead by example. If employees see management practicing good personal hygiene, staying home if they are genuinely ill and educating themselves about the virus, they are more likely to do the same.

Click here to find out what Texas Mutual Insurance Company is doing to ensure it can continue serving its policyholders during a bird flu pandemic. Visit the following websites for more information on pandemic planning for individuals and businesses:

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Bird Flu: What it Means to Your Business
Personal Tips for Weathering a Flu Pandemic
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Your Role in the Return-to-Work Process
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Legislature gets set to kick off 2007 session

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