January 10, 2006
A recent CFO survey found that only 7 percent of businesses are preparing for a potential avian flu pandemic. Preparation is important for this and other events that can disrupt business and endanger employees. Guidelines include training and preparing an ancillary work force. Cross-training current employees and documenting processes can help.
In September 2005 Dr. David Nabarro, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official, predicted that an avian influenza (bird flu) pandemic (an epidemic that spans a wide geographic area and affects a large proportion of the population) could kill as many as 150 million people. Shortly after the Nabarro statement, WHO's flu spokesman at the agency's Geneva headquarters made a statement about the prediction. Although he did not say that the 150 million prediction was false or improbable, he did say that WHO considers a maximum death toll of 7.4 million more reasonable.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Key Facts about avian influenza viruses states that the risk generally is low for most people because the viruses occur mainly among birds and do not usually infect humans. However, as of Nov. 25, 2005, more than 100 human cases of avian influenza infection have been reported since 1997. Most cases resulted from contact with infected poultry, such as domesticated chicken, ducks, and turkeys, or surfaces contaminated with secretions or excretions from infected birds. The spread of the avian influenza viruses from one ill person to another was reported rarely, and transmission had not been observed to continue beyond one person.
Of the few avian influenza viruses that have crossed the species barrier to infect humans, influenza A, also known as H5N1, has caused the largest number of detected severe cases and death in humans. More than half of those affected with H5N1 in Asia and Europe have died. Most victims were previously healthy children and young adults.
Laboratory studies suggest that prescription medicines approved in the U.S. for human influenza viruses should work in treating avian influenza infection in humans. However, influenza viruses can become resistant to drugs, so these medications may not always work. A series of clinical trials is under way for a vaccine for H5N1.
Because of the pandemic potential, the fourth-quarter CFO Outlook survey conducted by Financial Executives International (FEI) and Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business asked participants if their companies were planning for possible avian flu outbreak. Only 7 percent responded yes.
Among the responses about preparations were:
"We already have a disaster recovery plan in place as a result of the SARS outbreak that mainly has employees utilizing telecommuting to perform their functions."
"[We are] inventorying Tamiflu, planning for expat evacuations, and ensuring multiple supply lanes."
"Mostly [we have] a general awareness. We have not taken specific measures other than understanding how our business might cope with travel restrictions and what revenues and expenses we might make and incur in our business should a flu break out."
Other companies making preparations are forecasting earnings impact and working on continuity and contingency plans.
Believing that in a pandemic businesses will play a key role in protecting employee health and safety, as well as limit the negative impact to the economy and society, the CDC has developed a check listfor large businesses that identifies important specific activities to prepare for this and other emergencies.
The check list covers planning for a pandemic's impact on the business, its employees, and customers. It contains suggestions for allocating resources to protect employees and customers, the steps necessary to educate and communicate effectively with employees about the pandemic, and a plan for collaborating with external organizations to help both the company and the community. Businesses of all sizes should review the list and take appropriate actions.
Among the suggestions to minimize a pandemic's impact on a business is to train and prepare an ancillary work force, such as contractors, employees in other job titles/descriptions, and retirees. This particular suggestion is important for all businesses, regardless of size.
Many companies are structured so that a single employee performs a critical function that truly is an unknown to everyone else. If the employee is out of the office when a need arises for his or her expertise, projects literally grind to a halt until the employee returns. How vulnerable is the company if a key employee whose job is unfamiliar to anyone else is away for an extended period? How quickly can a co-worker learn the employee's job, or how quickly can the employer find and hire a qualified replacement who still will have a learning curve to overcome? What is the cost to the company in terms of time, money, and frustration?
Not all companies can afford to train and prepare an ancillary work force of contractors and retirees, and not all feel they can afford to train others within the company to fill additional roles when the need arises. However, cross-training is critical, and beneficial. It also can fulfill the role of employee development. A cross-trained employee becomes more valuable to the company and acquires additional marketable skills.
In addition to cross-training, it helps to document processes and procedures. This documentation can be a "cheat sheet" that lists the basic steps to perform a task, a more in-depth process manual, or both. The documentation should be considered supplemental information to be used only by qualified employees who have been cross-trained. Don't rely solely on process documentation. Armed with only the guidelines, an ill-prepared employee can do more harm than good.
With careful planning, businesses can minimize a pandemic's impact on the business and its employees. Cross-training in particular can help a company survive many unforeseen events and even increase efficiency in normal operations when a key employee is absent.