As the business development director of Logistics Health Inc.--a Wisconsin company that provides governments and businesses with medical readiness services--Laura Franzke is concerned about corporate America's laissez faire attitude toward the avian flu.
"My primary job is to collect knowledge and intelligence on the avian flu and monitor how governments are reacting," she says. "But the situation is getting very scary because there is a definite lack of knowledge at the corporate level."
And that could be a deadly mistake. The Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control estimates that 207, 000 could die in the U.S. alone as the result of a "medium-level" pandemic. In addition, such a pandemic could send 734,000 people to the hospital and 42 million to their doctors' offices.
In all, an avian flu pandemic could cost the U.S. economy $71.3 billion to $166.5 billion.
One way to lessen the economic and health impact of the deadly flu, experts argue, is for U.S. companies to design procedures to protect employees and their operations in the event of an outbreak. The problem, though, is few companies seem willing to do so.
"A lot of companies aren't doing anything," says Dale L. Deitchler, a shareholder and labor and employment lawyer with Littler Mendelson. "They think it's just a flash in the pan. Others compare it to Y2K and say officials are crying wolf."
The Alcan Way
The risk to employees and a company's operations, however, is far too great to ignore. "If the pandemic occurs, you need a plan on the shelf that addresses how to handle it at both the employee and customer level," Fanzke says. "Some companies--mainly in Europe--have already stockpiled basic supplies, such as respirators, gloves and face masks. We should be doing it too."
Fortunately, such plans aren't hard to put in place, and a company can implement them within a matter of months. For instance Alcan Inc.--a $20 billion Canadian aluminum manufacturer with approximately 70,000 employees in 55 countries around the globe--developed and implemented a detailed, global response program in just two months.
The company began the process in September 2005 when it convened a committee comprising corporate security, environmental health and safety, and communications representatives from Europe and Canada. In November the committee introduced a companywide program that covers everything from stockpiling medical supplies and quarantine procedures, to telecommuting and foreign travel policies.
The company's travel policy includes daily avian flu status reports that inform employees of the current situation by country and, if necessary, tells them what areas to avoid. At the plant level, the company has developed flu-screening processes including procedures to backtrack and identify anyone who came in contact with an infected individual.
Should the virus begin to spread, the company will implement the plan in stages according to four color-coded alert levels: green (non-contagious); yellow (spreading remotely in other countries); orange (spreading locally); and red (infecting employees). Each stage triggers specific instructions for employees.
"Right now we're at the green level, so we wanted to provide basic medical advice to employees without scaring anyone," explains Manoel Arruda, Alcan's EHS director.
If conditions reach the red level at any facility, the company will shut down and send employees home.
"At some locations, shutting down will only take a few minutes," says Mivil Deschenes, Alcan's chief security officer. "But with an aluminum smelter, it could take four days to ramp down to a complete stop. We've conducted drills with crisis management teams from all five business units."
In responding to an avian flu outbreak, the legal department's primary concerns involve contracts, liability and labor law issues.
"If there's a pandemic, and the risk of human-to-human transmission is high and prophylactic measures are ineffectual, employers will have more leeway to put safety ahead of workplace discrimination law requirements, such as reasonable accommodation or the ADA," Deitchler says.
Because an infected worker's presence at a facility would likely pose an undue hardship on the company, courts will recognize the only reasonable course is to send the employee home, Deitchler argues. In fact employers may be obligated to do so under occupational safety and health laws.
At this point, he says, legal departments should review leave policies and add provisions that deal specifically with infectious diseases. The legal department also should review workers' compensation, health insurance and union agreements.
"There may be a clause restricting the use of alternative or temporary labor which could restrict your planning," Deitchler says. "While many agreements address emergencies or acts of God, companies should consider proposing a disaster-management clause."
Companies should take a similar approach to long-term product or service contracts, adds Brian L. Levine, a litigator with Detroit-based Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone. "An organization that is forced to break long-term contracts because of a flu pandemic is going to have to convince the court that the outbreak was unforeseeable," he says. "Since we're being bombarded with doomsday predictions every day, that would be a challenge."
Levine recommends companies review long-term contracts and insert a clause addressing potential disruptions due to an avian flu outbreak. "It's very easy to put it in the contract," he says. "If it never happens, then it never happens. But at least you have the provision in there."
A Helping Hand
For companies that haven't yet addressed the possibility of a flu pandemic, third parties such as Logistics Health Inc., can do some of the heavy lifting.
"We've got three warehouses in Wisconsin that can order and store supplies," Franzke says. "And we're aligned with more than 20,000 U.S. clinics that can conduct checkups and dispense whatever medications are necessary."
The services of a company such as Maryland-based iJET Intelligent Risk Systems also can be helpful. iJET, which monitors international crises for companies with global operations, alerts business travelers and their companies when trouble occurs based on a database of travel information the client provides. The traveler and employer are alerted by phone, e-mail or pager and told what to do, where to go for safety, what flight to get out on and where to find medical help.
The only mistake a company can make is to maintain a wait-and-see attitude.
"Do your plan and buy your medical supplies now," says Bruce Blythe, CEO of Crisis Management International Inc., which helps businesses plan for potential disasters. "If you wait and this thing hits, the supplies are going to be gone."