Workplace Challenges of Pandemics


The reality of an influenza pandemic has now reached the American workplace. The Swine Flu H1N1 Influenza seems to have been overblown and is now ebbing. There were only two confirmed deaths. It appears that H1N1 is neither particularly contagious or deadly. In comparison, the H5N1 virus (the Avian Flu) is very deadly with an almost 50% mortality rate. Fortunately, the H5N1 virus is not contagious and is very difficult to spread.

Even though H1N1 did not turn into a pandemic, it is a good time to address your workplace plans for pandemics.

Employers need to to implement responses that protect their healthy employees, guard the privacy of sick employees, and comply with applicable national, state, and local law requirements. It is essential that employers do not permit overexcited media coverage to push them into taking actions that may be illegal or frightening to their employees.

The first step is to encourage healthy behavior by your employees:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Stay home if you get sick. Limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

In planning for a pandemic, you need to be careful if you decide to survey your employees about factors that may cause them to miss work in the event of a pandemic. You can trip over health privacy issues and ADA limitations. The EEOC made an ADA-Compliant Pre-Pandemic Employee Survey:

Directions: Answer “yes” to the whole question without specifying the reason or reasons that apply to you. Simply check “yes” or “no” at the bottom.In the event of a pandemic, would you be unable to come to work because of any of the following reasons:

  • If schools or day-care centers were closed, you would need to care for a child;
  • If other services were unavailable, you would need to care for other dependents;
  • If public transport were sporadic or unavailable, you would be unable to travel to work, and/or;
  • If you or a member of your household fall into one of the categories identified by CDC as being at high risk for serious complications from the pandemic influenza virus, you would be advised by public health authorities not to come to work (e.g., pregnant women; persons with compromised immune systems due to cancer, HIV, history of organ transplant or other medical conditions; persons less than 65 years of age with underlying chronic conditions; or persons over 65).

Answer: YES __________ NO __________

It’s time to give some thought about what your workplace would to in the event there is a pandemic.


The image is the H1N1 influenza virus, taken in the CDC Influenza Laboratory.

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