Employers 'complacent' about risks from bird flu pandemic

Jan 12 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Businesses are still worryingly complacent about the potential business risks from a bird flu pandemic and are not making contingency plans fast enough, a British consultancy has warned.

The calls comes in the wake of a warning this week by banking giant HSBC that as many as 50 per cent of its workforce could be put out of action by a pandemic.

With the spread of the disease to Turkey, albeit still without any sign of human to human transmission, businesses need to be working on contingency plans right now, recommended business information and advice service Croner.

The company said it was receiving a growing number of calls to its telephone helplines from employers unsure if they should prepare for bird flu.

Richard Smith, employment services director, said many of its clients were underestimating or unconcerned about the potential impact of the virus.

"No one really knows whether the virus will become a pandemic, but after the United Nations warning [that the virus is spreading], we're advising employers to be prepared for the worst," he said.

"Businesses should evaluate all real and perceived risks to their organisation. While it may be more front of mind to prepare for other threats such as terrorism, a pandemic could cause even greater disruption," he added.

Likely business threats from bird flu included staff shortages through employees taking time off sick, to care for others or to avoid infection, said Croner.

There would also be a likely knock-on problem in finding cover for absent staff.

There could be high costs from implementing stringent health and safety policies and procedures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Likely public transport disruption would make it difficult or impossible for staff to get to work.

Other factors that needed to be considered included the cost of home-working solutions for those unable to attend work, disruption to the supply chain and disruption to business travel, especially by air, said Croner.

It has advised employers to draw up a simple information bulletin to employees to keep them informed of where they can travel to and where to avoid, or providing suitable equipment for employees to continue to work from home.

Once a plan has been developed it is then up to the organisation to ensure that all employees are aware of it.

"Employers can't afford to wait and see to what extent this virus might strike. It's only when they sit down and analyse the impact of a bird flu pandemic that they will begin to realise the potentially devastating effect it could have on their business. If the virus hits, there'll be no time for planning," said Smith.

"Employers should think about how their business will run with a patchy workforce, and how they will cope if managers and directors fall ill.

"Practically they need to make decisions about company policies on sickness absence, and consider the risk of the virus spreading in communal workplaces. Our message to employers is not to panic, but make sure they have a contingency plan in place.

"Some careful consideration now will help employers plan for the additional resource needed to ensure their business survives bird flu," he added.