‘Most organizations don’t have a plan yet’ : H1N1 readiness

Ottawa Citizen, Vito Pilieci

OCM Manufacturing is included in this article about local businesses who are taking H1N1 business continuity planning seriously:

The potential outbreak of the H1N1 virus this fall could have disastrous implications for unprepared Ottawa businesses, according to numerous public- and private-sector groups.

The Conference Board of Canada released a report last month stating that, while businesses were aware that a second wave of H1N1 infections would likely take place this fall, many are not doing enough to prepare for the spread of the flu.

“When you are looking at a pandemic, you have to look at the degree of absenteeism that will occur. People will be sick, family members will be sick and some people may be scared to come in to work,” said Gilles Rhéaume, vice-president of public policy at the Conference Board of Canada. “For a major pandemic, you can expect between 25 per cent all the way up to 35 per cent of your workforce being absent and, in that case, how do you continue to operate? I would say most organizations don’t have a plan yet.”

Rhéaume said businesses without a plan risk not being able to operate should H1N1 escalate this flu season. He also said old business continuity plans, which may have been created for previous flu outbreaks like SARS or avian flu, must be updated to reflect the current business climate and the specifics of H1N1.

“Everyone was caught by surprise given how it (H1N1) happened, where it came from and the speed that it happened,” Rhéaume said. “Even for those businesses that do have a plan, they have to dust it off and ask, ‘How would it operate under current conditions?’ Business conditions have changed since 2005.”

Late last month, the Conference Board released a report called Ready or Not: Effective Pandemic Response, which was based on a round-table discussion held with numerous businesses to gauge whether they were prepared for the coming flu season.

The Conference Board isn’t the only one trying to get the word out on being prepared.

Dr. Isra Levy, Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, is also warning there is no time to waste. Every business should be planning for the worst-case scenario, even if it never becomes a reality.

“We anticipate a busy flu season and expect to see this virus,” said Levy.

“We have been hearing that some large businesses have done some planning. It’s important that all of us, as components of the system … that we all pitch in,” said Levy.

With the potential for employee absenteeism to skyrocket, every aspect of a business could be in jeopardy. Suppliers and transportation companies could be shut down, effectively leaving a business with nothing to sell, assuming, of course, that customers are still shopping.

John Ash, manager of Ottawa’s Emergency Measures Unit, said all businesses should have some sort of current emergency plan in place to help them during a time of crisis. He said even if H1N1 wasn’t expected to be a problem this fall, events like the Ice Storm of 1998 and the sudden SARS outbreak in Toronto prove that emergencies happen without warning.

“We encourage and promote that all businesses take business continuity planning seriously,” he said. “Yes, it’s an effort, but it will certainly pay off.” The city is offering a program called Are You Ready, which can be accessed through its website or by calling 311. The program gives citizens and businesses access to emergency preparedness experts.

Other organizations are also offering assistance when it comes to preparing for this fall’s H1N1 spread. The Ottawa Chamber of Commerce has partnered with a local nursing organization to help businesses facilitate the administration of flu vaccines to employees. The organization can also arrange mask-fitting sessions for businesses to make sure the surgical masks protecting workers actually fit the employees’ faces. (Public health agencies do not encourage the use of masks by the general public, because their improper use can spread infection.)

Some businesses have heard the warnings and are now working towards creating a plan. Michel Jullian, chief executive of electronic parts maker OCM Manufacturing Inc., said he has held meetings with his executives and is in the midst of formulating a business plan that would allow them to continue operating during the worst possible scenario.

“The risks are you can have up to 50-per-cent absenteeism from anywhere from a couple of weeks up to eight weeks,” he said. “We are trying to plan for that and see how that could affect us; it would be significant. We are trying to figure out how to minimize that absenteeism.”

Jullian said his business is in the early stages of formulating a business plan, but will encourage vaccinations as soon as they are made available by having a clinic at his place of business. He is encouraging tele-work, to allow employees who can work to work at home, and his company is looking at medical supplies like surgical masks, gloves and hand gels that kill bacteria.

He is not as concerned with the possibility of being cut off from supplies to make his electronic components as he already works with numerous suppliers.

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Shaun Markey