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

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

The latest OHS advice on managing swine flu

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Some time ago SafetyAtWorkBlog was critical of OHS regulators releasing swine flu information because the advice was not being easily translated in the workplace, and some of the advice was just silly. 

Workplace_Guide_to_Managing_an_Influenza_Pandemic_Page_1Much better advice is available from the New South Wales government however, curiously, the Workplace Guide to Managing Influenza Pandemic has been issued by the Department of Commerce.  The department’s Office of Industrial Relations has released the document which makes more sense however the release seems to be contrary to WorkCover New South Wales who defers to the NSW Health Department, surely the most logical central point for communication on this public health issue.

There are too many “experts” on the workplace impact of swine flu influenza and pandemics.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has kept out of this issue as we share the position of WorkCover NSW – defer to the State or National authorities.

However, some companies feel obliged to be seen to be doing something, anything, about swine flu and their half-cocked measures are discrediting their overall process of safety management.

One national company recently issued a new policy advice to all staff on swine flu.  The policy was little more than a cut and paste from an official fact sheet.  It added little to the employees’ knowledge of the hazard and in no way answered staff questions such as 

  • If my child’s school is closed due to a swine flu threat, what type of leave am I entitled to take?
  • The company has provided annual influenza vaccinations.  Will I need re-vaccinating in the event of swine flu and will the company cover this cost?
  • In what circumstances can my employer send me home?

Not only was it next to useless, the company had the cheek to include its own corporate logo on the policy.  Public health and OHS information is usually flexible in its reuse but somebody in the company looks like they are empire-building rather than managing their staff.

People want advice on how swine flu will disrupt their lives and working lives, not information on swine flu itself.  Employers should leave the health information to the health authorities and concentrate on the management of the disruption and potential health threats within their area of expertise, their own workplaces.  

If employers raise expectations by issuing policies in areas outside of their expertise, they begin a spiral of the demand for information that it may be impossible to satisfy.

Kevin Jones

Worst Case Scenarios and Pandemics – 2005 interview

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In 2005 I had the great opportunity to spend some time with Peter Sandman, a world renowned risk communicator.  We spoke about worst case scenarios and risk communication in those times of avian influenza and smallpox threats.  The interview has gained additional poignancy in this time of swine flu.  

Although the audio is “noisy” as Collins St in Melbourne had more traffic on a Sunday morning than I expected, I think some readers may find this excerpt very useful at the moment.

Click on the magazine’s cover image below to download the interview transcript.

[For Peter Sandman’s current commentary on swine flu, see http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#swineflu1 and especially http://www.psandman.com/col/swinecomm.htm]

or Peter Sandman’s current commentary on swine flu, see
http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#swineflu1 and especially
http://www.psandman.com/col/swinecomm.htm. 

 

Kevin Jones

6i11 cover

Swine Flu – isolation – a personal view

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Australia’s swine flu numbers are increasing and the government is introducing new measures regularly in response. I write this post from self-imposed isolation from the swine flu outbreak in my son’s high school.  There are some interesting decisions that have been made which provide me with optimism but also illustrate some useful personnel management actions.

I heard about a confirmed case of swine flu at the high school at my son’s soccer match last Sunday.  I was asked by a soccer mum whether my son knew a boy at his high school who was a confirmed swine flu case.  He did and we had not heard.

When I returned home there was no message from the school on my answering machine and nothing on my mobile.  I looked on the internet and the case was reported but more importantly the school was to be closed for a week.  I confirmed the media report by looking at the local health department website.  The case and control measure was mentioned.

However, what does it mean in the broader context when a school is closed?  Is my son in “isolation”? Are the other family members?  The websites could not help with this so I rang the helpline listed on the website.  Yes, my son should have no contact with people outside the house and we should monitor his health, and that of others in the household, for symptoms.

I knew my employer had issued an email from Human Resources in late April advising what to do in the case of an outbreak of swine flu.  However, this is not much help for the days prior to symptoms or confirmation of the infection.  As I am not in isolation I could be going to work as normal and potentially and innocently infecting work colleagues – not a good risk control.  (I have written elsewhere on the matter of presenteeism, here was a preventative opportunity)

I put some risk management questions to the employer even though my advice would be to have me work from home.  Within 12 hours, my employer had set me up to work from home for the rest of the week.  The IT adviser emailed me a procedure entitled “Flu Pandemic Remote Access”.  I commented that I was a little surprised that the company was this prepared.  The IT adviser said it was only new and I was the first user.

My wife’s employer is still assessing the situation but we are of the same opinion that if work can be done from home, we should be located at home for the remainder of the isolation period.  We are lucky that our occupations afford us this option.

On Monday morning the school rang me to answer any questions about swine flu.  I didn’t ask any as we had done our homework and arranged to go to school to collect some of my son’s schoolwork for his time in isolation.

It could be asked why the school waited 24 hours to notify me? How does any company or organisation contact up to 700 people on the weekend?  These are issues that are currently also being discussed in a Royal Commission into Victorian Bushfires in Melbourne.  The school had all of its staff and teachers on the phones after a meeting at 9.00am that morning.  The school’s website did not get an update until Monday morning but not everyone turns on their PC on a Sunday.   In the context of the slow encroachment of swine flu in Australia, I think this was reasonable.

It should be noted that although my son was friends with the infected boy only the immediate classmates were provided with Tamiflu and that this occurred on the Sunday – a fair response.

Anticipating the family being at home for a week, I purchased some supplies including a thermometer as a useful way of identifying  at least one of the swine flu symptoms.

Two days into isolation and there are no symptoms.

From a professional OHS perspective, communication has been acceptable. Available online information was okay and company support reassuring.  At this early stage of the outbreak in Australia, we are optimistic and not worrying ourselves over issues over which we have no control.

Kevin Jones