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Disaster planning is a job to be done today, not tomorrow

Published on Friday, 10 May 2013
Pattie Walsh

The Situation
There has inevitably been real concern, both locally and globally, about the recent deaths in China as a result of the H7N9 bird flu virus. It brings back memories of previous pandemics involving avian flu and the tragedy of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), especially in Hong Kong and China.

Leaving aside the human cost of a pandemic, businesses still have to be able to operate as effectively as they can in such situations of adversity. Human nature, however, is such that many of us do not like to think about potential disasters in advance and, unfortunately, many businesses have been inclined to take the same approach. Disaster or pandemic planning is often high on the priority list when tragic events are still fresh but, as time passes, “business as usual takes over” and half-finished disaster plans remain half finished.

The recent outbreak of bird flu should leave no employer – especially those with large mobile workforces – in any doubt that they must prioritise the strategy to be adopted in the event of a pandemic.

The Considerations
Employee absence is the most obvious effect of a pandemic. Employees may be absent because they are sick or because they need time off to care for dependants. It is important to balance the risks of being unprepared for high levels of employee absence against the consequences of changing contractual terms in anticipation. The situation is complicated by the duty of employers to protect employee’s health and safety, which requires that the workplace is maintained in the safest possible manner.

It is also important to make sure an organisation’s data and confidential information is adequately protected. Allowing employees to use home e-mail accounts could be a major security risk. The use of employee’s home contact details will also need to be managed with sensitivity and in compliance with data-protection laws and an organisation’s privacy policy.

If employee absences reach critical levels, organisations may need to consider alternative sources of labour. Periods of acute staff shortages are clearly not the best times to attempt to engage in new relationships to provide commercially viable options – these relationships need to be in place well in advance.

The Action
Employers can follow some simple tips for immediate pandemic planning.

Carry out a pandemic risk assessment and identify the key issues that could arise out of a pandemic. Adopt a business-continuity plan (if one does not exist) that outlines how the business will continue during and after an emergency situation. Make sure there are clear emergency procedures in place in cases of an infectious disease pandemic. Check insurance policies cover all potential eventualities, including claims by staff.

Ensure all staff are provided with the most recent advice on the latest threat. A clear communication network plays a critical part in ensuring staff are kept fully informed. Take into account high-risk staff, such as pregnant employees.

Study existing employment contracts and handbooks and, if necessary, implement a policy regarding sick leave, annual leave and unpaid leave in cases of outbreak. Consider flexible work patterns and working from home. Make sure confidential information and data is adequately protected when work is conducted outside of the usual workplace and on employees’ personal machines.

Clean up the workplace and provide adequate and proper face masks and other personal protective equipment. Train workers to ensure their effective use.

Identify the critical positions within the company and the minimum number of employees needed to keep the business running. Look at employees with transferable skills so they can be moved into temporary positions if needed, and consider the need to recruit a high number of temporary staff at short notice.

Ensure the IT infrastructure can cope with large numbers of staff working remotely and maximise the availability of home and mobile working. Consider the effective use of video conferencing or other virtual facilities to reduce the need for travel.

While all the planning in the world will not prevent the outbreak of a pandemic having potentially serious consequences, for any affected business, it is clear that prudent employers can do a significant amount to mitigate the inevitable risks.

DLA Piper is a global law firm with 4,200 lawyers located in more than 30 countries throughout the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East, positioning us to help companies with their legal needs anywhere in the world. Pattie Walsh is a Partner and Head of DLA Piper's Asia Pacific Employment practice. Pattie writes extensively for legal and HR publications, she has a particular focus on multi-jurisdictional employment work.

The information contained in this article should not be relied on as legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for detailed advice in individual cases. If advice concerning individual problems or other expert assistance is required, the service of a competent professional adviser should be sought.

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