Many firms not ready for pandemic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am

Many companies in Hong Kong are unprepared to handle health-related emergencies, according to a snapshot survey.

The results of the survey were revealed on the same day that the World Health Organisation declared a swine flu pandemic.

The study by human resources (HR) consulting firm Mercer showed that about 40 per cent of Hong Kong employers appear to have no co-ordinated policy in place to effectively deal with health-related emergencies.

This is despite the crippling Sars outbreak in 2003 and early warnings about the potential threat posed by the deadly bird-flu virus.

With a Phase 6 global flu pandemic now declared, and the Hong Kong authorities closing primary schools, kindergartens and child care centres for at least two weeks, far too many companies are still scrambling to implement HR policies to safeguard staff and other contacts without overly impeding normal business functions.

If they have not done so already, the top measures businesses should be considering include stockpiling personal protective equipment and restricting employee travel. They should also be providing additional training on the symptoms and preventive measures, and taking steps to split rosters and allow staff to work from home, said Robert Allen, regional medical director for North Asia at International SOS.

'Companies should be creating flexible plans that include multiple options and levels of response depending on the activity and spread of disease within their community,' Dr Allen said.

'In addition, these plans need to focus on key vulnerabilities such as traveller risk and the work environment.'

International SOS has assisted more than 100 companies to develop pandemic plans. The agency, which operates in 70 countries, helps organisations manage health and safety risks facing their employees. It offers everything from consultancy and planning services to 24-hour medical and security advice and assistance.

However, in its own recent survey, the agency found that only 27 per cent of HR executives at multinationals in Hong Kong had completed contingency plans and that 86 per cent of respondents had not seen a need for increased urgency in pandemic planning.

Following its own research, Mercer conducted internet briefings over two days last month for company representatives.

The aim was to outline the implications of the swine flu virus for businesses as part of the firm's global initiative to provide employers with relevant information and advice to address the workforce challenges that would arise in a large-scale outbreak.

Rosaline Chow Koo, Singapore-based leader of Mercer Health & Benefits in Asia, said about 1,000 companies around the world joined the briefings.

'What we did is go through all the things that they have to go through: how do we prepare for a pandemic, what are the things that we should think about,' Ms Chow said. 'We looked at what human resources personnel have to do, such as how you make sure your employees are protected.'

The briefings explained that companies should consider workforce planning, health programmes, pay practices and communication strategies as key elements in their contingency planning. Practical assistance and preventative measures were also discussed.

Ms Chow said companies could see a 25 to 40 per cent absenteeism rate due to illness, family care, school closures, fear, quarantine and travel restrictions during a pandemic. The industries that are expected to be hardest hit are retail, restaurants, airlines, hotels and tourism.

Mercer's survey showed that only 52 per cent of 376 companies had contingency and back-up plans ready to roll. Among respondents, 41 per cent planned to allow working from home and 43 per cent intended to cancel or restrict business travel as soon as the level of alert warranted it. About 27 per cent were expected to enforce quarantine of employees at risk or ask those exposed to risk to undergo voluntary quarantine.

Stephen Morgan, regional director for Asia-Pacific health care at public relations company Weber Shandwick, said that while companies might have such plans in place, it was now vital to revisit them and check for loopholes. '[It is important] to make sure that people given responsibilities are up to date. Companies should also make sure they are regularly rehearsing and revising their plans,' he said. 'Even if you have a plan, you need to review and make sure that the advice is consistent across all your markets.'

He said that with the global financial crisis still hurting many businesses, it should be a priority to ensure continuity of services and operations. 'A pandemic on top of the financial situation could push some companies over the edge,' he said, adding that the right systems must be in place to gather the intelligence to ensure staff and customers were properly prepared.

Dr Allen suggested that companies, which had not yet acted, clearly had to accelerate their pandemic preparedness plans to ensure business continuity and mitigate risk. 'The magnitude of the full impact from [swine flu] remains to be seen, but it is projected to be significant over the next 18 months,' he said. The WHO has already warned that a second wave of infection could occur this winter in the peak flu season.

Since 2005, the Centre for Health Protection has conducted many forums and briefings for the business sector. It has recently updated specific guidelines for the workplace.

'To better prepare for an influenza pandemic, enterprises are encouraged to refer to our guidelines and formulate their own pandemic preparedness plans with a view to maintaining operations [and] services, protecting their staff, and reducing socioeconomic disruption to the community,' a Department of Health spokesman said.