Is your business ready for H1N1?

While business continuity planning normally refers to the creation of a plan to recover and restore partially or completely interrupted functions after a disaster or extended disruption, it has generally not included creation of a plan to deal with the result of employees becoming sick. We all did planning for Y2K, now we may need planning for H1N1.

The President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology has predicted that 30 percent to 50 percent of the U.S. population could be compromised by the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, this fall and winter. That is approximately 90 million to 150 million individuals. (Yes, that is millions!) While we all know that workers will fall ill and be out sick for one or more days each year, what can happen to your business if 30 percent to 50 percent of your staff is out sick for a week or more at the same time?

Businesses normally plan for and continue on through routine sick days and vacations, but the possibility of several employees getting swine flu at the same time is a reality. An individual can have the swine flu for at least 24 hours before symptoms appear. Coughing and sneezing during those 24 hours can easily spread the flu throughout a department or company.

What if your business has contact with customers – can employees wash hands/use hand sanitizer after each contact? Does the business even provide hand sanitizer? The flu could be caught by employees in one or several departments and could have a serious impact on business operations. This year is one in which significant, immediate business continuity planning may be needed to address what happens if a significant number of company employees contract the swine flu at the same time.

Here are some of the business elements that might be reviewed:

• Chain of command: The chain of command in any company is extremely important. What happens if there is a break in the chain? Who will make decisions? Do individuals move up the chain? Who has the authority to sign an important contract that needs an immediate signature?

• Responsibility: Will authority be delegated should there be a break in the chain of command? For example, if a manager is out with swine flu will the assistant manager have that manager’s authority to approve projects that have traditionally required managerial approval? Will authority levels move down if both the manager and assistant manager are out ill? If only two people have authority to sign checks and both are out, has the authority been transferred to another?

• Operations: Let’s assume the business has a call-in center for customer quotes and questions and has four staff. Then assume three of those staff get the swine flu at the same time. What plans have been made to replace staff in those call-in center positions? What will happen in a pharmacy should the pharmacist become ill? Is there a replacement ready to step in? If not, will prescriptions be referred to another pharmacy?

If you have a service department with a manager, supervisor and five workers, what happens if the manager and three workers all become ill at the same time and are out for a week? If you can’t provide the service needed by your customers will they move to a different service center?

Is your business ready to transfer staff immediately to fill positions? Are those staff trained to meet the requirements of those positions?

• Temporary assignments: Temporary workforces exist for many businesses. Are temporary workers available for yours? Is your work/service so distinct that temporary workers from an outside agency are not appropriate? Can you move other employees to fill the needs of those out with the swine flu and then obtain temporary workers to fill the positions of those moved?

As you can see numerous questions surround what can happen if a significant number of a company’s employees are infected with the H1N1 virus and are out of the office at the same time. It may not be too late to sit down and make plans to ensure business continues in that event.

Michael L. Averill, a chartered property casualty underwriter, is principal of Michael L. Averill Consulting LLC, Bedford. He can be reached at 603-714-0844 or