A look at how workplaces can prepare for possible coronavirus outbreak

A look at how workplaces can prepare for possible coronavirus outbreak

TORONTO — Companies wary of what an infectious outbreak could do to their workforce and bottom line are revisiting contingency plans as the new coronavirus continues to spread.

Marie-Helene Primeau of the Montreal-based risk management company Premier Continuum says she’s spent recent days fielding questions from several firms seeking guidance on what to do if the rapidly spreading illness that originated in China threatens the health of employees and customers.

“Everyone’s looking at their state of readiness,” says Primeau, whose company provides training and advice to a range of firms including banks, insurance companies, government agencies and those in manufacturing.

“They’re actively revisiting the plans, but they’re not necessarily stockpiling masks.”

Health officials in Canada have repeatedly stressed that the risk to public health remains low. Seven cases have been identified in Canada, while worldwide, the illness known as 2019-nCoV has sickened more than 37,000 people and killed more than 800, nearly all in China.

Nevertheless, Canadians are being urged to remain vigilant against infection, with medical experts reminding the public we’re still in the throes of flu season and that good hygiene is advised — wash hands frequently, cough and sneeze into tissue or your upper sleeve, and don’t touch your face.

Disaster management expert Amin Mawani says workers and managers alike should take this time to combat misinformation, repeat hygiene tips, be clear on sick leave policies and prepare for the possibility of mass absenteeism.

If an outbreak hits, employers should encourage unwell workers to stay home, Mawani says, but a key step to mitigating an outbreak’s impact is to keep people from getting sick in the first place.

“You can’t buy traditional insurance in a sense, but you can prepare for it by spending some money planning for it and stockpiling certain things — masks and whatever else you might need,” says Mawani, academic director of the health industry management program at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

A possible outbreak has critics refocused on provincial sick day allowances in Ontario, where the Progressive Conservative government offers most workers three days of unpaid leave each year and allows bosses to demand a doctor’s note.

Health-care workers say that can make it hard for some to stay home when necessary, and if sick people work in high-risk settings — such as food services, long-term care facilities or childcare spaces — the impact can be significant.

“A lack of paid sick days results in children and adults transmitting infections at school and work, exacerbating contagion throughout the province,” the group Decent Work and Health Network warn in an open letter to Premier Doug Ford.

Mawani agreed employers should consider whether they’re prepared to ease sick day restrictions if the virus strikes staff, noting hardline policies also threaten morale and loyalty.

Workers should also consider coming up with their own protective measures, he adds.

“In some ways employees can take the initiative, they can say: ‘Look, I can easily do this at home,’ or ‘I can do this on the weekend. Why do I need to come in tomorrow?’” he says.

“And employers should be willing to listen during this phase so even if (workers) don’t start working from home now (the company) can have plans ready.”

John Yamniuk of the Toronto-based consulting firm DRI Canada says there are ways to limit person-to-person infection at the office, even those with open layouts, communal spaces, and shoulder-to-shoulder computer stations: Is there room to leave a vacant spot between workers? Is there an unused meeting room that can be transformed into an alternate work space?

“If you’re in a call centre environment, (think about) providing extra cleaning services, providing individual headsets for folks so they’re not sharing keyboards or things like that,” adds Yamniuk, based in Calgary.

Primeau’s advice includes making sure contact information for staff and partners are up-to-date.

She also encourages managers to run through “a tabletop exercise” — in which each person discusses their role during an emergency and all agree on how best to respond to various scenarios.

And don’t assume you can just rely on a temp agency if a lot of people call in sick, she adds, because you can’t guarantee availability or loyalty.

“Temporary backup was something that was brought up when we were talking about the (H1N1) pandemic 10 years ago but the thing is that those individuals will also be sick as well,” she says.

“It’s more (about) focusing on what’s key. What’s urgent to perform? What are the critical activities, rather than calling upon a temp.”

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