Monday, October 5, 2009

At a time when many companies have been laying off workers to cope with hard economic times, the onset of flu season threatens to further thin the ranks.

If the feared swine flu hits hard, it will take a “remarkably strong effort” by some companies to stay in business, said Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, who expects area businesses to lose one out of five workers to the flu at some time during the outbreak.

But the traditional “Oh my gosh, I got to go to work no matter what” attitude will only harm the rest of their work force, said Rep. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican, who is also a practicing physician.

American businesses lose an average of $150 billion each year to workplace illness, according to a Harvard Business Review study. Swine flu could increase that number “rapidly” if businesses aren’t prepared, said Peter Sheldon, vice president of Coverall Health-Based Cleaning System, a Boca Raton, Fla., provider of building cleaning services.

As many as 50,000 Americans could die because of swine flu, Mr. Sheldon warned.

Business are considering new approaches to workplace illness as they struggle with this “perfect storm scenario,” Maryland lawyer Andrew Milne said.

Many are encouraging “telework” for employees who need to stay home to care for sick relatives. This option allows them to get the most out of workers without exposing the rest of the work force to the virus, Mr. Milne said.

Other companies have created a donation bank where healthy employees donate sick leave to fellow employees who run out of sick days, he said.

“Generally, Americans are pretty goodhearted people,” Mr. Milne said. “It’s not hard to tap into that if you give them the opportunity.”

Temporary staffing is a third option for workplaces affected by swine flu, Mr. Milne said.

Businesses that don’t want to permanently lose good employees should consider these options in advance, Mr. Milne said.

Besides adopting new workplace policies, employers should be asking workers to practice basic hygiene, Dr. Cassidy said.

“Right now, on my desk I’m holding hand sanitizer. Throughout my office is hand sanitizer,” he said. “Whenever someone touches their face or sneezes, I squirt them with hand sanitizer.

“The best precaution is what your mom told you: ‘Wash your hands, cover your mouth, rest,’” Dr. Cassidy said.

The key to maintaining a healthy work force is to wipe down “high touch points” such as keyboards, desktops and door knobs daily, Mr. Sheldon said.

However, personal hygiene is not enough, Mr. Sheldon said. Offices should also be professionally cleaned every night, and companies should be leery of cleaning companies that do not remove germs from offices because even dead germs can become a “food source” for new organisms.

“Essentially, you’re creating a buffet for the next round of microbes,” he said.

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