As health officials scramble to investigate a cluster of deaths in Indonesia from the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu, an international poll has reported rising levels of concern – but still little forward planning – among businesses over the possibility of a flu pandemic.
Seven people from the same family in northern Sumatra, Indonesia have died from the disease in the past month, despite there being no signs of diseased poultry in the immediate area, and investigators are looking into the possibility that the virus may have spread from human to human.
The survey by HR consultancy ORC Worldwide has found many companies are "very concerned" about a possible flu pandemic and are taking proactive steps to prepare.
"We were particularly interested in how employers are dealing with the impact such a pandemic might have on human resources strategies, policies and practices in their organizations," said Robert Freedman, chief executive ORC Worldwide.
"What we found was that companies are concerned and aware of the risks of a bird flu pandemic, and an ever increasing number are taking proactive steps to prepare for a possible outbreak, but we also found many are not planning for the loss of key employees," he added.
The poll encompassed 129 companies primarily located in North America and Western Europe, but also in Asia, Australia, and Eastern Europe.
Just two companies had turned to an outside consultant to lead their pandemic planning.
But 84 per cent have named or intended to name an internal leader, it said.
Even more, 87 per cent, were using a cross-functional team to prepare pandemic plans.
These committees were primarily focused on employees, their security and the facilities they worked in, IT support and supply chain concerns.
But issues such as communications with employees at the local level needed more attention, found the poll.
There had also been little emphasis on planning for alternative forms of communications should the phone or e-mail communications fail.
Similarly there had not been enough planning around replacement/succession planning for key employees, staffing of HR, safeguarding outsourced HR processes and business operations processes and information technology support, said ORC. Of 116 employers that said they are engaged in pandemic preparedness planning, just 29 per cent had completed their planning, 52 per cent were in the process of developing plans and another 19 per cent intend to start soon.
Of the 129 employers that responded to the survey, only 13 indicated they planned to rely solely on existing disaster plans or that they do not intend to do any planning for a pandemic.
"The results of this survey are very telling of how seriously companies are taking pandemic flu preparedness and how vital a role communications will play if there's a bird flu pandemic," said Frank White, ORC's senior vice president for Safety, Health and Environment.
"Developing effective communications strategies for employees, customers and suppliers and local public health agencies are all key elements of the planning process," he added.