At this time a year ago, the news was filled with reports of pandemic flu, illnesses and deaths, and across the country employers had begun to carefully evaluate their pandemic preparedness. While many had emergency plans, most plans did not cover issues related to extensive absenteeism, exponential use of sick leave, availability of materials and supplies, restricted distribution and other possible consequences of a pandemic.

Fortunately, the looming crisis was averted without any major disruptions. Nonetheless, in January 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that more than 208 countries had confirmed cases of pandemic influenza H1N1 2009 and that over 13,000 people had died as a direct result. While there are still uncertainties surrounding the 2010 flu season, H1N1 remains a serious concern, and the WHO and other government agencies are preparing for yet another wave of flu activity this fall.

Employers also need to be prepared — very prepared — for another pandemic flu outbreak.

Develop a comprehensive plan

While a flu pandemic is a frightening prospect, companies can minimize the effects of an outbreak by having a plan in place that will effectively address issues before, during and after they arise. The nature of a flu pandemic should compel employers to create policies to address sick leave, travel, hygiene and return to work. These policies should be unique to the company and apply only under the specific circumstances of a pandemic. For example, consider situations involving employees who have been exposed, are suspected of being sick or have become sick at work. What will the company require of individuals in any of these circumstances?

Do employees travel for the company? If so, it is necessary to specify the conditions under which travel to affected geographic areas (both domestic and international) will be restricted. If employees are traveling in or near an affected area when an outbreak begins, will they be evacuated? If so, how?

How will the company prevent the spread of flu? Will it institute a respiratory hygiene policy requiring employees to wear masks? If so, when? Such a plan should also include instructions about cough etiquette, hand-washing procedures and sanitation of offices and work areas.

Companies must also determine when a previously sick employee is considered no longer infectious and therefore able to return to work. Issues such as compensation, flexible work hours, telecommuting, etc. may need to be addressed. Again, these should be pandemic- and company-specific.

Line up replacement workers

Finding replacement workers may be difficult if employers wait until a pandemic begins. The first place companies should look is their own workplace. If you haven’t already, begin cross-training. The advantage here is that current employees already know the facility, policies and procedures.

If cross-training isn’t a feasible option, employers need to consider the obvious — temporary employment agencies. Contact agencies ahead of time to discuss potential needs in the event of a pandemic. Because your company won’t be the only one looking for replacement workers during such a crisis, an agency may not be able to provide enough workers to fill all vacancies.

A third option is to partner with companies in industries likely to be hard hit by a pandemic, like the hospitality and travel industries. In such cases you may be able to fill in with individuals who find themselves temporarily displaced from their regular positions.

Establish a communication system

A pandemic outbreak can evoke widespread anxiety. In all probability employees will discuss their opinions and feelings about the situation, and much of what is said may not be fact-based. Employees may question your policies based on media reports rather than on what is actually happening in the workplace.

Establishing an effective communication system will go a long way toward alleviating rumors and misinformation that create undue anxiety and panic. Communication can be handled via a hotline, website, newsletter or even a bulletin board that conveys to employees that your organization is monitoring and controlling the situation. If employees aren’t sick or contagious (or caring for family members who are), you need them at work. And if they are at work, you need them to be focused on their jobs.

Stockpile health supplies

During a pandemic, an employer may want to provide infection-control supplies like masks, tissues, sanitizers, cleaners, disinfectants, etc., to help prevent the spread of virus. Consider stockpiling supplies when the demand is relatively low and the cost relatively inexpensive. Be aware, however, of each product’s shelf life and storage conditions. Develop a stockpile management program where products are rotated by consuming the oldest supplies first.

Develop alternate resources for supplies and materials

During a pandemic it is likely that many businesses will not be able to operate as they do under normal conditions. What if a main supplier is hit with a high rate of absenteeism? How will supplies and materials be acquired? Consider stockpiling crucial supplies and/or identifying local sources.

Also consider outsourcing. A company could potentially outsource human resources functions, technology and even production. If this is a possibility, investigate the provider’s ability to deliver on their promises in the event of a pandemic just as you would a supplier or shipper.

Minimize face-to-face contact

Social distancing measures should be implemented to minimize face-to-face contact in order to help prevent the spread of disease. This could include telecommuting, installing physical barriers and restricting access to certain work areas. Carefully assess business operations to determine if such measures would be necessary and how they would be implemented.

Emphasize wellness

It’s no secret that a person’s lifestyle and level of fitness affect his or her ability to fight off or recover from illness such as the flu. Employers who make wellness a part of their health and safety plan can help employees become better prepared to fight any form of illness and therefore be able to return to work that much sooner. Many companies promote wellness by offering onsite flu shots to employees as a preventive measure. Having an onsite flu clinic can provide you with the perfect opportunity to distribute information in the form of brochures and fact sheets.

Be prepared

The effects of a flu pandemic can be widespread and devastating. However, advance preparation can minimize the impact of extensive absenteeism, inadequate availability of materials and supplies, restricted distribution methods, etc. Just knowing what to do in the event of an outbreak is not enough. An effective plan will help a company handle a flu pandemic with success.