Worrying how to cope if bird flu becomes a pandemic, U.S. companies are making contingency plans from telecommuting to letting workers sleep on the job.
Companies are struggling to design ways to combat what could be a highly infectious disease and make a third of the population sick, experts say. As many as 40 percent of workers could stay home during the peak of a pandemic wave, they say.
"There are those professionals saying nothing is going to happen, and there are those who are saying this is going to be bad," said Jack McKlveen, risk management manager at United Parcel Service Inc.
"You have to take that spectrum and plan across all scenarios, as you don't know which one is going to occur."
The Atlanta-based company with 407,000 employees is making plans for telecommuting, staggered shifts and purchasing huge quantities of hand sanitizer. Also, teaching employees how to prevent spread of disease is key, he said.
Companies face an array of potential problems, from employees staying home sick to employees coming to work sick, an overload of infrastructure due to telecommuting and supply shortages, said Beth Maldin, an associate at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"We're a 'just-in-time' society, and people aren't keeping stockpiles of goods," she said. "We need to think of all the interdependencies, of which there are a lot."
To deal with SARS, the plastic molding company Nypro, with 8,000 employees in China, ran skeletal staffs, staggered shifts and closed its cafeteria, all to minimize personal contact, spokesman Al Cotton said.
"We even went so far as to set an hour with the lights out and let everyone take a nap," he said. "It allows you to stretch out the work day."
The U.S. government last week issued a new plan for dealing with a potential pandemic, suggesting travel restrictions and school closings and keeping workers three feet (one meter) apart. It also advised companies to set up policies for flexible working hours, rely less on public transportation, appoint a pandemic coordinator and cross-train staff.
Companies making plans are in the minority, however, according to a recent survey by human resources consultants Watson Wyatt Worldwide that showed only 15 percent of large U.S. companies have any bird-flu plan.
Companies that are not making plans tend to take one of two approaches, said Steven Ross, director of security and privacy services at Deloitte & Touche consultants.
"One is 'We've heard this hype before,"' he said. Or, he said, companies say, "We are all going to die. I can't even begin to plan."'
Maybe the topic is just too sensitive, said Paul Striedl, head of the Association of Contingency Planners.
"We look at losing a facility, losing our information technology, losing our people or losing our supply chain," he said. "When it comes to losing people, we're not good at that. I think it's because people struggle with documenting their own demise."
The H5N1 strain that is spreading among birds does not easily infect humans, but it has killed more than 100 people. Experts fear it could mutate into a form that could spread easily and quickly among people.
Until the virus mutates, said UPS' McKlveen, "there's an awful lot of unknowns. .... So there's a level of planning that has to be accounted for that you can't fully do yet."