Swine flu – A very odd catastrophe

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Each weekend the readership of one particular swine flu article increases.

It is almost two months since that article was posted and the mood in Australia is remarkably blasé about swine flu even though over that time Australia has experienced its first swine flu deaths.  It seems that for those not directly affected by a swine flu case, the influenza is a non-issue.

This mood is surprising as the initial reports of Australian exposure, when isolation remained a valid option, were alarming, even allowing soem leeway for media hype.   Perhaps the alarms was more from the authorities’ response – isolation – than from the infection.  Perhaps one’s expectations were increased from a teenage diet of disaster movies and novels such as Day of the Triffids.

The issue currently has no specific workplace relevance so there are no plans for further SafetyAtWorkBlog articles on the issue.  Still it feels a very odd catastrophe.

Kevin Jones

BHP, swine flu and leave entitlements

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Many OHS professionals and business gurus state that safety leadership must come from the top of the corporate tree.  BHP Billiton received some rare positive press on 16 June 2009 concerning its OHS policies.

According to Mark Hawthorne, BHP CEO Marius Kloppers has revealed he is battling “pig flu”, in his words.  This seems to have generated a flurry of OHS activity.  Sadly the best OHS practice was not mentioned, which would be to send the infected CEO home.

Hawthorne’s article identifies several BHP swine flu actions:

  • non-essential trips have been cancelled;
  • executives who must fly are being provided with Tamiflu;
  • cleaning shifts have been increased;
  • telephones, keyboards, rest rooms and public areas are being disinfected more regularly; and
  • bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitisers have appeared.

SafetyAtWorkBlog is seeking clarification from BHP Billiton on a number of points.

It is hoped that these measures were not generated only by the CEO comments but were already in place, particularly, following previous incidents with SARS and even avian influenza.

Any measures should be supported by staff consultation that involves more than a notice on the board or an email in the intranet.  Many of these measures generate as many questions as they hope to answer and there should be information sessions for those who wish more detail.

Indeed one of the basic employment issues that always comes up in discussions about pandemics is leave entitlements.  The importance of brainstorming pandemic planning can be illustrated by an article in The Australian, also on 16 June 2009.  The ACTU believes that unpaid leave should not be applied if a worker needs to be absent from work due to influenza, even if the worker themselves are not ill.

The ACTU has told SafetyAtWorkBlog that the following motion was passed at last week’s ACTU Congress

that Federal and State governments should bring together peak union and employer groups to establish guidelines for handling the pandemic. These would:

  • ensure workers and their families are not financially disadvantaged by the outbreak;
  • provide employers with useful information and procedures to deal with any suspected cases of swine flu in the workplace;
  • ensure persons who are in isolation as a consequence of swine flu are not discriminated against or disadvantaged in their employment; and,
  • educate the community about the disease to stop misinformation, panic and help in the overall strategy to slow down the spread of the disease during the winter months.

One of the criticisms that SafetyAtWorkBlog has expressed about many influenza advice sites is that control of the hazard at work is not being seen in the context of occupational health and safety.  This was the case with www.fluthreat.com.

Sadly, influenza information from OHS regulators is of dubious value and application, in many instances, and the regulators have not been promoting their advice.  Very little OHS traction has been gained on the pandemic, even when the unions make the point to the media, as the ACTU did with The Australian newspaper.  The Australian’s article did not mention the following, and sensible, ACTU advice:

“Employers owe a duty of care to workers to provide healthy and safe workplaces as far as reasonably forseeable(sic) [and] the swine flu outbreak has been highly publicised and is reasonably forseeable.”

Let’s hope that the BHP Billiton control measures are part of an integrated OHS/pandemic plan and not a reflex action to please the boss.

Kevin Jones

Not another Australian swine flu website!?

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Recently in 2009, the Health Services Australia company launched a new swine flu website.  

The HSA site is run by a private health services company and came to the attention of SafetyAtWorkBlog through a news item by the OHS Commissioner of the Australian Capital Territory.   The ACT OHS Commissioner may not be endorsing the site but the HSA website is described positively.  The Commissioner’s site says

“The site provides information on the risk of flu – pandemic, swine, avian and seasonal varieties – expanding upon information previously published on their avian influenza site.

It also includes the latest health alerts, FAQs, useful links and information on travel health services relating to flu which people may find of benefit.”

For further information on www.fluthreat.com.au SafetyAtWorkBlog followed the trail from fluthreat to HSA which then lead to the site of one of Australia’s largest private health insurers, Medibank Private.  The two companies merged only recentlyon 1 April 2009.

Health Services Australia is listed on the fluthreat site  as the copyright holder but Medibank Private is not mentioned.

The HSA site which includes a prominent link to www.fluthreat.com.au does mention Medibank Private, in a mediarelease link on the home page but more succinctly, but almost in passing, under Governance and Structure:

“Health Services Australia Limited (HSA) and its subsidiaries are owned by Medibank Private Limited (Medibank).”

It seems very odd that the ACT OHS Commissioner should be directing Internet visitors to a privately run influenza information website instead of to the influenza information from authoritative websites such as the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, the ACT Dept of Health, the Federal Government’s dedicated swine flu site – healthemergency, or even the the World Health Organisation.

[SafetyAtWorkBlog has repeatedly tried to contact the ACT OHS Commissioner’s office but gets an answering service each time.  The media spokesperson for HSA Group and Medibank Private has not yet returned calls]

Kevin Jones

Swine Flu and business continuity – video

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On the evening of 2 June 2009, the ABC TV show “Lateline Business” ran a short item on the business continuity issues associated with Australia’s swine flu outbreak.  Not much that was said was new but it proposed an interesting scenario for those people who manage aged care facilities where a potentially virulent illness could harm residents who it may be difficult to isolate or quarantine.

Michael Tooma of Australian law firm, Deacons, spoke briefly to remind viewers that health and safety were important legislative obligations that relate to illnesses, such as swine flu.  Interestingly he provided a rule-of-thumb scenario on business continuity.  He asked whether a business could continue to operate with 20% less staff, a 20% reduction in logistics services and 20% less customers, if the swine flu realises its potential.

Most of the speakers spoke from the current position that Australia is suffering from a “mild” case of this virus.  The story would be considerably different if Australia suffered its first swine-flu fatality, as have other nations.  One death and the terminology will change.

A video of the segment is available to view online.

Kevin Jones

Presenteeism and swine flu

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Craig Donaldson interviewed Joydeep Hor, managing partner of Australian law firm Harmers on employment issues related to the swine flu outbreak.  Joydeep rightly points out that HR and OHS processes should not differentiate between swine flu and other workplace illnesses.  Hor briefly discusses the employers duty of care and how to question one’s traditional approaches to the “sniffles” at work.

Of course there is also the much under-enforced obligation of the employee not to put their work colleagues at risk – the major argument against presenteeism.

Kevin Jones