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With new cases of swine flu diagnosed on a daily basis, it's clear that a swine flu pandemic has the ability to cause major disruptions in facility operations. And in a sign that swine flu should be taken as a serious threat, the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised its pandemic alert status to Phase 5 -- the highest level before a pandemic is declared.
Below is a collection of resources facility managers can use to help prepare for a swine flu pandemic. Check back frequently for updates as the situation develops.
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Collier County, Fla. Watches, Prepares For Swine Flu Posted 4/30/09
One of the most essential functions of any facility department in the event of a pandemic will be the implementation of a rigorous cleaning regimen to inhibit the spread of the contagion within the property. Regular and strategic disinfecting with appropriate cleaning products will be essential for protecting employees" health and ensuring business continuity.
"Establishing janitorial protocols is one of the most important tasks at the property level," says Jim Rosenbluth of Cushman & Wakefield.
What exactly should those protocols entail? Given the volume of information -- and misinformation -- currently circulating about swine flu, determining the best combination of janitorial procedures and products presents a challenge. In the meantime, health experts advise an approach that is grounded in common sense.
"Just think in terms of the cleaning procedures you should be using now to protect your employees from the regular annual flu or other colds and viruses," advises Judy Althoff, a registered nurse who provides employee health services to corporations. "A good cleaning program that protects against these routine threats is also going to be effective if there is a pandemic."
In addition, says Rosenbluth, "cleaning and sanitation protocols should be developed based on the characteristics of the building, its usage and traffic patterns."
In an office building, for instance, protocols might call for the scrubbing of elevator buttons as often as hourly. In a retail facility, priorities might be the regular disinfection of ATM machines, door pulls and checkout counters. Experts recommend that cleaning protocols be benchmarked against established guidelines -- like the World Health Organization's pandemic threat level system -- so that sanitation procedures are automatically stepped up as the identified threat increases.
Working in collaboration with human resources and workplace medical personnel, facility departments can further minimize the threat of workplace avian flu infection by keeping employees and vendors informed and providing them with the tools to protect themselves. Steps might include placing hand-sanitizer dispensers throughout the facility; providing each employee with a bottle of disinfecting spray to keep phones, keyboards and work surfaces clean; and posting signage about proper hand-washing techniques.
As with all aspects of business continuity planning, say experts, the important thing is thinking ahead.
"We have identified a list of pandemic-related disinfecting and personal hygiene products that we will issue to our employees, and distribute at our properties if and when a pandemic occurs," says Rosenbluth. "Likewise, we have developed corporate guidelines to help each of our property managers develop pandemic preparedness plans tailored to the properties they are managing."
-- Abigail Gray, contributing editor, Building Operating Management
While planning for a flu pandemic should begin at the corporate level, a successful approach must involve representatives not only from management, but from human resources, communications, IT, legal and compliance, and facilities. And it should begin with a careful look at what a flu pandemic infecting up to 40 percent of an organization's key employees would really mean.
From a facility perspective, that means compiling a list of critical questions, say industry experts. Crucial questions include:
* Which building systems are mission-critical, and what is the bare minimum staff required to support their operation?
* Which staff are currently trained to operate critical systems and what specific skills make them qualified?
* Which non-facility staff perform functions essential for facility operations (i.e., purchasing)?
* Which if any critical building operations can be managed remotely? Can other systems be upgraded to allow remote operations, and if so, what would these upgrades cost?
* What would happen if any given facility had to be closed because of quarantine or staff shortages?
* What vendors or contractors perform essential functions?
* What supplies are needed for the support of critical facility functions?
* Which employees perform tasks that cannot be performed off-site, and where are these employees located?
The answers to these questions will go a long way toward forming the basis of a pandemic plan. In all likelihood, they will point to a number of key action steps that include:
* Cross-training employees within the facility department to cover one another's responsibilities.
* Collaborating with other departments or sites to provide cross-training for facilities support functions.
* Developing contingency plans for the acquisition of crucial supplies should delivery schedules be disrupted, or for the advance purchase of bulk supplies.
* The development of "how to" notes describing step-by-step execution of critical tasks.
* The establishment of infrastructure to support the IT systems that will facilitate large numbers of employees working from home.
Pandemic planning should address interventions from the minor -- whether and when to close down coffee stations and water coolers -- to the extreme -- how to equip a facility with days or weeks worth of food and supplies in case key employees need to quarantine themselves, and possibly their families, inside. Communications plans should be spelled out well in advance, and e-mail lists established for all staff, vendors and contractors. And pandemic action plans should be practiced.
"Some companies are having pandemic exercises where they are going to arbitrarily have 20 percent of their workforce work remotely from home for a week or two and see what issues come up," says Susan Nuccio, vice president and director of business continuity, Jones Lang LaSalle. "Another way to approach it would be to run through it theoretically: What if only two of our six engineers can show up? What would that look like?"
The sheer volume of planning can leave facility executives feeling overwhelmed. But, says Karen Avery, a business continuity management practice leader for Marsh Risk Consulting, pandemic planning should be regarded as part of an overall business continuity plan.
"Don't take the threat approach," she says. "there are so many specific threats out there that there is no way you can comprehensively plan for each one separately. It is much more cost-effective to just look at the impact of the loss of any of a number of key resources -- whether it is staff, key contractors, facilities, technology, or departments -- and plan for it. That way you will be covered, no matter which specific threat arises."
-- Abigail Gray