The fast-spreading swine-flu virus has a lot of people nervous. It is not pandemic and may never be, but forward-thinking firms are reviewing their policies, procedures and preparations for dealing with a situation that potentially could have a devastating impact on their businesses. The timing could not be worse, as many companies struggle with financial pressures from the global recession.

The Possibility of a Flu Pandemic Requires Business Planning

The potential for a business impact brings into sharp focus business-continuity fundamentals that are useful in any emergency. The swine flu that started in Mexico and is spreading around the world is the second pandemic influenza scare in the last several years, the first being the avian flu that was concentrated mainly in Asia. That did not spread globally, but it did spawn a very useful “Pandemic Preparedness Manual.” Prepared in late 2006 for the nonprofit International Facility Management Association Foundation, it mainly is aimed at facility-management personnel but can be adapted for construction businesses. It can be downloaded at Other useful information is available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Just as the avian flu mutated to spread from birds to humans, the contagious swine influenza virus has changed into a form that apparently can spread with ease from human to human. It is a force to be reckoned with. The “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918-19 infected about 500 million people (about a third of the world’s population) and killed about 50 million. It was the most devastating epidemic in world history, worse even than the Black Death of 1347-51.

According to IFMAF, a flu outbreak could lead to the absenteeism of 25% to 50% of employees for up to four months. The manual suggests employers perform preplanning and develop business continuity plans on a companywide basis. The planning includes establishing internal and external communications protocols and reviewing policies on pay, time off, visitor restrictions, travel restrictions and medical clearance. Triggers also should be established for building closures, mandatory absences and other preventative measures. The manual also suggests that employers can contain the flu by providing employees with training on awareness and prevention, as well as supplying disinfectant and sanitary products.

There are drugs to treat the flu. CDC recommends the use of oseltamivir or zanamivir, noting that it may lessen the virus symptoms and prevent severe complications. But common sense also applies, such as avoiding people who are sick, washing hands frequently, staying at home when sick and avoiding touching the eyes, mouth or nose.

This is not yet a major health problem in the U.S., but companies should revisit contingency plans now.