On Feb. 6, 2007, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a document that discusses pandemic influenza and recommends ways employers can prepare for an outbreak (www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3327pandemic.pdf). According to the document, titled “Guidance on Preparing for an Influenza Pandemic,” employers will play a key role in protecting employees' health and safety in the event of a pandemic as well as in limiting the negative impacts on the economy and society.
OSHA developed the guidance because of recent outbreaks of the avian influenza virus (H5N1 strain) in Europe, Africa and Asia. The H5N1 virus is a highly contagious and lethal disease in birds that has resulted in the death of tens of millions of fowl. The virus has infected more than 200 people in 10 countries and killed more than 100 people.
Presently, the spread of the H5N1 virus from person-to-person has been limited and has not progressed beyond two people. However, experts have predicted that the possibility for the virus to more easily and widely spread from person to person exists, which could lead to a worldwide pandemic.
OSHA believes that the primary spread of influenza will be through infected people coughing, sneezing or talking and non-infected people directly or indirectly contacting contaminated droplets and transferring the virus to their nose, mouth and eyes.
The National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) recently published a white paper on avian influenza and the potential management of infected birds, titled “Avian Influenza: The Hunt and Peck for Answers,” which can be downloaded at www.nswma.org.
According to OSHA, an avian influenza pandemic could potentially be widespread, affecting multiple areas in the United States at the same time. Employers likely will experience absenteeism of up to 40 percent during the peak of the pandemic because of employee illness or employees caring for infected family members.
Businesses also should expect changes in patterns of commerce during the pandemic as the demand for infection control items increases dramatically while demand for other goods declines. The supply and delivery of goods from geographic areas affected by the pandemic will be interrupted because of worker illness and an inability to obtain raw materials.
OSHA recommends that employers immediately develop plans that will reduce a pandemic's impact on their operations, employees, customers and the general public. They urge companies to:
Review and incorporate federal, state and local health department pandemic influenza plans.
Prepare for operations with a reduced workforce.
Work with suppliers to ensure that your company can continue to operate and provide services.
Develop a sick leave policy that does not penalize employees for staying home to avoid infecting other employees with the virus.
Identify possible exposure and health risks to your employees.
Minimize exposure to fellow employees and the public.
Identify business-essential positions and people required to sustain business-necessary functions and operations.
Plan for downsizing services while anticipating scenarios that may generate a surge in demand for your services.
Stockpile items such as soaps, tissue, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (e.g., respirators) to protect workers from an influenza pandemic.
OSHA developed the guidelines based on traditional infection control and industrial hygiene practices. The guidance is advisory and informational in content and does not impose new legal obligations on employers.
However, several unions have petitioned the Department of Labor to develop emergency temporary standards that protect workers during an influenza pandemic. OSHA has not established any standards concerning enforcement during a pandemic because of the many variables that must be considered once such a situation develops.
Ed Repa is director of environmental programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association.