Businesses share lessons from spring H1N1 outbreak

Sep 24, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – On the final day of a business preparedness summit in Minneapolis, a panel of experts emphasized having clear, open communication with employees as well as having flexible plans—lessons they learned from being on the frontlines in Mexico and the Southern Hemisphere during the spring novel H1N1 outbreak.

Other critical lessons shared by the panelists were the need to build strong relationships between corporations and national and local governments and recognizing the importance of promoting prevention measures both in and outside of the workplace.

The 2-day summit, "Keeping the World Working during the H1N1 Pandemic," was sponsored by the CIDRAP Business Source, part of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Building strong relationships
"The single most important thing that we learned is that government trumps everything," said Fred Palensky, PhD, chief technology officer with the 3M Company in St. Paul.

Despite the fact that 3M had planning policies in place for crises, such as a flu outbreak, that could disrupt their businesses, these didn't matter once the government mandated policies to shut down schools and prohibit people from going to work.

Given how events unfolded, Palensky said, the key is flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. "We were surprised at every single minute of every single day," he said.

One critical lesson Palensky learned from his company's experience is the importance for businesses to develop a strong relationship with national and local governments, particularly when there is a lot of conflicting information about what is occurring. It is important, he said, to try to have access to the highest levels of government to get a consensus of what is going on.

Developing a strong relationship with government also helps to leverage a company's position in a country during such a crisis. Palensky said that the experience of 3M during the spring H1N1 outbreak diverged from other countries because, as a supplier of N-95 respirators, the company was deemed to be a critical supplier and had access to government. This preferred position also allowed its management team to assemble and factories to stay open.

"The reason we were able to do that is that we had relationships to government so that we could identify ourselves and offer ourselves as a critical supplier," he said, "and that very quickly changed the tenor of our relationship with the government."

Other critical relationships to form are with people who have expertise in pandemic preparedness. Palensky said that, along with having a corporate medical director with pandemic planning expertise, the company also works with local medical experts.

This is particularly important in situations, like the spring outbreak, that involve a lot of conflicting information.

Maintaining good communication
This often-conflicting information in the spring highlighted the need for developing and maintaining good communication with employees. "Everyone had a different story, and there was no reliable data," said B. Rodrigo Cabanilla, MD, corporate medical director of occupational medicine with the Monsanto Company, St. Louis. As a result, his company is now trying to implement a way to obtain and disseminate information to its employees as quickly as possible.

Dr. Irene Lai, MB, BS, deputy medical director of International SOS in Sydney, Australia, also spoke of the need to provide good information to people, particularly when government actions create a situation in which people may be affected by different, and sometimes contradictory policies.

Citing varying responses to the spring outbreak among different states in Australia, she said that one major lesson was the need to inform people of the ramifications of traveling between states that have different response policies.

One important aspect of developing good communication with employees is to identify high-risk patients, according to Cabanilla. Highlighting that 99.5% of employees who get sick will only be mildly affected and return to work, he stressed the importance of "attending to and identifying as soon as possible high-risk people and provide interventions."

Palensky agreed about both good communication and identifying high-risk patients.

After discovering this spring that 3M's communication needed improvement, Palensky said the company is enhancing communication with workers, both onsite and offsite, through phone, e-mail, and company postings, as well as in person. "We have significantly increased our communication to employees when they are not at work," he said.

In identifying high-risk patients, he also emphasized the need to provide protective measures, like hand sanitizers and respirators, to employees at work and at home.

Taking care of families
Lai also highlighted the importance of taking care of employees' families. She said that, particularly with the expatriate population, employees are concerned about protection of their families. Therefore, early on International SOS communication efforts and decisions included how employee behavior is modified by families.

For CIDRAP Director Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, who moderated the session, focusing on protecting workers at home as well as at work demands that the old model of occupational safety be tweaked to more accurately reflect the 24/7 communication model needed to protect workers. "This is one area we can work on," he said.

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