With the World Health Organization (WHO) battling accusations that its preparations for the H1N1 pandemic were overblown, emergency management specialists say it’s still important for companies to get ready for major health crises.
“There are still active cases going on around the world, so it’s not like the disease disappeared,” says John Saunders, provincial director of disaster management and international response at the Canadian Red Cross. “It’s still a great reminder of the potential for a health crisis and the need for companies to be able to respond to those.”
The WHO came in for criticism earlier this year, with some saying that the H1N1 or “swine flu” virus wasn’t as virulent as the organization predicted. For its part, the WHO said its efforts were justified, and the damage could have been much worse. By May, it had counted 18,097 deaths due to H1N1.
Health and safety experts agree that organizations need to be ready for a pandemic — both for workers’ safety and the company’s economic survival. We asked a handful of industry professionals for their top tips for pandemic preparation.
1. Integrate pandemic planning
Chuck Wright is the director of the World Conference on Disaster Management (WCDM), held in Toronto in June. He notes that pandemic plans must integrate with organizations’ overall health and safety systems.
“It should be rolled in,” he says. “When you do your risk management assessment, pandemics are just a small part of that.”
William MacKay agrees. He’s head of MacKay Emergency Management Consulting Inc. (MEMCI) in New Hamburg, Ont.
“Look at the broader emergency management and business continuity program, which includes the plan,” he says. “That will take care of your need for pandemic planning.”
Integration only makes sense, says Saunders from the Red Cross. “A lot of the protocols are very similar. If there’s destruction at an office, the protocols you’d be putting in place for a pandemic emergency would be exactly the same. If one of your suppliers fails as a result of a pandemic, or their factory burns down, either way, your supplier has failed. You need a backup plan on what to do for that.”
2. Think big
It’s always a good idea to “plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Saunders says.
“You don’t want gaps to be identified in the first 24 hours of your response. ‘Oh, we didn’t bring enough in.’ If you think only 100 people will need food, plan for more — and plan for a pipeline so if the number balloons, you’re ready.”
3. Understand the standards
MacKay points out that health and safety professionals have at their disposal a wealth of standards designed to help them plan for a pandemic — but those standards only work when people know them, and implement them.
In Canada, we have the Canadian Standards Association’s (CSA) Z1600 emergency management and business continuity programs. They align with U.S. and U.K. standards meant to help organizations mitigate issues resulting from disasters.
“These standards give you criteria for an ongoing sustainable program in your business or organization that has five basic pillars with respect to not just pandemic but all of the hazards your business faces,” MacKay says. The pillars are prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. “If you have a program in place that has all of the fundamental components... you’re going to be in better shape to handle any type of incident.”
4. Forget flying solo
Experts suggest it’s better to work with others than muddle through alone.
“Talk to your industry peers,” Saunders says. “You don’t have to reinvent everything on your own.... There have been a few examples of companies in the insurance industry coming together — one or two companies taking the lead, and trying to bring their peers at other organizations together. This isn’t a competitive edge. This is about how to ensure continued support to Canadians.”
Options abound for organizations seeking help. “There are obviously quite a few consultants making some very good money doing this, which is one route,” Saunders says. “We’ve developed a website for the not-for-profit sector, because we recognized that if a lot of these small humanitarian organizations should fail, it would put an added burden onto the already-strained health care services.” Called Ready for Crisis (www.readyforcrisis.ca), the site provides primers on continuity planning. “It’s available to all,” although designed for the volunteer sector, Saunders says.
Wright says that in case of disaster, employees should know who to call to let people know they’re OK, even when the office is offline.
“You should always have a third-party off-site contact that your employees call into,” Wright says. “It could be somebody from another regional office.”
The employees in the other office would be able to contact the families of the people in the affected office to let them know what’s happening, he says.
5. Practice makes perfect
Employ dry test runs, Wright advises. Not enough companies do this.
“Go through your plan. What does your plan entail?”
When a propane facility in Toronto exploded in 2008, emergency services cordoned off a large area. Many people couldn’t get into their businesses. When companies employ dry runs, they stand a better chance of being able to contend with situations like that, Wright says.
6. Consider employees
“One of the biggest things companies aren’t doing is making sure that their employees are personally prepared,” Wright says, adding that this was one of the key topics at this year’s WCDM. It entails encouraging employees to get vaccine shots, making sure they have emergency preparedness kits at home, and that they can keep in touch with what’s going on in the media.
7. Keep it simple
Wright also suggests simplifying your pandemic plan.
“Look at the size of the program you have,” he says. Many organizations will stuff a binder full of information. But “your bottom-line or entry-level employees are not going to be reading that manual.” Bring it down to a one-page cheat sheet that informs employees what they should do in the event of a disaster or pandemic.
8. Don’t over-do it
MacKay agrees that simplicity is important.
“It sounds like we’re building a Cadillac here. But you have to be realistic. You have to tailor the program that you develop to the... size of business you have.”
Speaking with the local board of trade in New Hamburg about business continuity, he recognized that the organization wouldn’t develop as extensive a plan as, say, Imperial Oil would.
“But the key people in the organization, if they’d even sit down around the lunchroom table with a scribbler, a pencil and an eraser, they could take some of the fundamental questions and say, ‘What can hurt me? What might I do about it?’... They would be further ahead than if they didn’t do anything.”
Everyone we interviewed says communication is crucial.
“Engage as much of your company as possible in the discussions,” Saunders says. “What scares people more is a lack of information, than receiving information. If they’re actually part of the planning process, it’s better for buy-in, and it gets more people involved in the realities of the situation, as opposed to people wondering what’s going on.
“The companies that did this extremely well during H1N1 were the ones that developed specific communications channels where employees can go to get information about the company’s response to the outbreak. The ones that failed are the ones that forced their employees to believe only what they saw on TV.”
10. Get the bosses involved
Experts also say it’s important for senior management to be sold on the pandemic plan.
“If your senior management is sold on the idea, they’re the ones that control the availability of others in the organization, and the funds and all the rest of it,” MacKay says. If the emergency coordinator doesn’t have senior management behind them, “it’s not going to go.”
Are Canadian organizations prepared?
Experts say Canadian organizations may not be blazing trails in the pandemic planning world — most businesses could do much more to prepare. But organizations are further ahead today than they were a few years ago.
“I think the H1N1 situation helped somewhat — just the awareness of that,” MacKay says.
Wright says large organizations tend to be better prepared than small organizations. He also notes that most Canadian companies are small, so majority of Canadian organizations across the board probably aren’t prepared.
Saunders agrees. “My fear is (for) the small and mid-sized companies that don’t have a lot of the material and resources to put towards something that might happen.”
Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.