22 October 2006
Risk Communication as a Pandemic Flu Countermeasure for the Business Community: More is Better
Discussion of pandemic human influenza, possibly deriving in the future from the ongoing H5N1 avian influenza outbreaks, typically focuses on public health implications for the general population. However, an often forgotten side of pandemic influenza is the impact on corporations. Disruption due to employee illness, travel limitations and infection would lead businesses to incur loss during an infectious outbreak.
The Department of Health and Human Resources and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have provided a Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist (http://www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/businesschecklist.html) for corporations in anticipation of a future pandemic human flu virus appearing in the United States. Regarding risk communication, the agencies suggest several precautionary measures. Companies should develop and distribute educational materials explaining influenza basics such as symptoms and modes of transmission. Communication planning should anticipate employee anxiety and the inevitable generation of rumors and misinformation.
Furthermore, communication strategies should consider potential cultural differences and linguistic barriers. Employees must also receive information about company pandemic preparedness and response plans to ensure awareness of procedures in the event of an outbreak. Companies should also provide employees with household preparedness information, should family members become ill. The agencies also recommend that companies develop a consistent, timely way of communicating status and actions to employees, vendors, suppliers and customers. Companies should identify community resources for employees to utilize if countermeasures such as vaccines and containment are sought.
Because a business would likely incur loss during an infectious disease outbreak, and because such an outbreak is an unusual event, insurance claim disputes are another seldom-examined issue worthy of exploration. The risk and insurance services firm Marsh discussed avian flu and the possibility of preparing for a pandemic in a January 2006 report for clients and colleagues (http://www.marsh.com).
As the report notes, commercial general liability policies usually cover injury, sickness, and death. The link between infections or an exposure to the insured will likely receive close scrutiny by an insurer, who will often claim a policy is applicable to only actual injuries. Insurance companies frequently reject claims based on fear of exposure and asymptomatic exposure, although standards vary with individual policies.
Property insurance policies could also become problematic during a pandemic. Real property could become contaminated with influenza virus, workplaces could close, and the government could potentially impose quarantine. For a successful claim, insured property typically must incur physical loss or damage from an event against which the company is already insured. Therefore, unless the insured has a policy specifically covering infectious disease outbreaks, compensation is unlikely. A claim that people avoided the property due to threat of the virus could potentially meet the counterargument that no physical damage occurred. Furthermore, in the case of quarantine or government shutdown of property, insurers could also claim that the physical presence of the virus itself fails to generate quantitative damage.
Several widely recognized corporations, including Intel Corp. and Boeing, are taking proactive stances against pandemic influenza (http://www.workforce.com/section/02/feature/24/23/31/). Intel Corp., the leading producer of microchips, computing and communications products, for instance, has a vested interest in preparedness efforts due to previous experience with SARS, as the company has global offices and manufacturing plants in China and Malaysia, countries that experienced pandemic avian influenza. Intel’s efforts include steps such as distributing educational materials in the company newsletter, enforcing basic disease containment precautions, bolstering capabilities for employees to work from home and utilizing teleconferencing capabilities globally. The company has also prepared risk mitigation strategies such as relocating some manufacturing facilities to additional functional and conducive areas.
Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, has similarly begun examining business continuity issues and worker protection plans in hopes of minimizing operational disruptions. The corporation has also conducted a critical assessment of employees required to conduct core activities. Such studies facilitate the development of realistic contingency plans.
Although recommendations exist and several leading corporations have established precautionary strategies, in the event of a pandemic influenza outbreak, many employers within the corporate arena are unprepared. This fact is most clearly illustrated by insufficient, or even non-existent, business continuity plans.
Jessica Arabski, Jennifer Harris, Kristina Meko, Tyler Merkeley, Danielle Meyer, Bill Petoskey, and Christina Sanders.
Graduate students, Georgetown University Master of Science (M.S.) Program in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases. Biodefense Public Health Countermeasures MICB-523.Washington, DC.
Daniel R. Lucey, MD, MPH. MICB-523 Course Instructor. Director, Center for Biologic Counterterrorism and Emerging Disease. Washington Hospital Center EROne Institutes. Department of Emergency Medicine. Washington, DC.
Posted on: www.BePast.org E-mail: Daniel.R.Lucey@Medstar.net