Despite growing concerns about the transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the U.S. workplace, most businesses consider SARS a minor problem, according to a poll of 135 senior-level legal and human resources executives taken last week. The survey also found that more than 70 percent of the companies questioned have yet to develop any type of response plan for SARS.

The survey was conducted among attendees at a national employment law conference hosted in Phoenix by Littler Mendelson, the nation's largest employment and labor law firm.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number of probable SARS cases in the U.S. at 35.

"While those numbers are disturbing, they also are somewhat predictable," said Garry Mathiason, senior partner at Littler Mendelson. "There is a substantial underestimation of the potential impact of SARS in the United States primarily because the war coverage has blotted everything out. We don't see what's occurring in other countries, where the epidemic is much further along."

Attendees at the conference represented a wide range of U.S. employers, including a number of Fortune 500 firms. Twenty-three percent of the respondents said SARS was not a threat to their business, 55 percent said it was a minor threat, while 22 percent said it was a serious threat.

Seventy-two percent said their organization does not have a SARS response plan in place, while 21 percent said their company does have a plan. Seven percent did not know if a plan is in place.

"With what we now know about SARS, and its potential for severe workplace consequences, it is critical that companies understand the threat is real and establish response plans to protect their workers and their own interests," said Jeff Tanenbaum, senior partner and co-chair of Littler's occupational safety and health group.

He suggests that the best approach for most employers is to develop and implement a communicable illness policy and response plan. "SARS is a major concern, but it is not the only communicable illness for which employers must be prepared, and the issues raised by any such illnesses are often quite similar," noted Tanenbaum, who has led the development of Littler's model Communicable Illness Policy and compliance package.