Pandemic planning: don’t take your eye off the ball
- Published: Friday, 01 July 2016 08:08
Pandemic planning seems to be a low profile area at the moment but if you think your organization is safe from a pandemic, think again. Ann Pickren overviews the subject and looks at what to include in your business continuity and disaster recovery plans.
Unlike a regionally defined epidemic, a pandemic is capable of spreading virtually anywhere on the planet. This means that a pandemic may not only impact your staff and operations, but could compromise businesses all along your supply chain, your customer base, remote plants and much more.
Pandemics have come and gone for centuries, with the modern world suffering three major influenza pandemics in the last century (1918, 1957 and 1968). The 1918 influenza pandemic lasted three years, killing more than 50 million people, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.
Fast-forward to 2009 when the World Health Organization declared that the latest strain of H1N1 Swine Flu cases had reached pandemic proportions; by February 2010, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 57 million Americans had contracted the virus. SARS emerged in China in 2002 and quickly spread to at least 28 countries. Canada lost 40 people to SARS, and the outbreak caused a 14-week emergency in Toronto, where 30,000 people were quarantined at home or in hospitals, and the city lost millions in revenues during that time.
Based on past pandemics, current models suggest that a new and highly contagious virus strain could spread across the US in as short a time as five weeks. This would affect communities for six to eight weeks before receding. There would probably be at least two waves, separated by months. At least a third of the population would be likely to become ill in each wave, with peak absenteeism at work and schools running as high as 40 percent.
Today’s emphasis on lean operations and just-in-time supply chain management places businesses at risk during a pandemic. A disruption in the work force or supply chain can trigger a domino effect with widespread impact on businesses and the economy.
Is your company prepared for a pandemic? How would you manage if a significant number of your workforce had to stay home for days or weeks to care for infected family members? In a major pandemic, even the employees who remain at work are likely to become ill at some time during the first eight-week pandemic wave and, as that will mimic the pattern expected in the general population, many people will be out at the same time. Typically, a person who becomes ill misses a minimum of seven days of work, and for each sick employee, another will not come to work because of the need to look after a sick spouse or children. Sadly, a certain percentage of workers who become ill from pandemic infection will die or will suffer loss among their families.
Mapping it out: understand what you need
As in the case of any business interruption, the value of reliable and fast information delivery quickly grows in importance. Fortunately, most companies now have EMNS (emergency mass notification systems) to send alerts and other critical information broadly to staff. When updating or adding pandemic response to your business continuity strategy, it’s also a good idea to build message maps, create templates and choose administrators for the various scenarios in the plan.
Your organization should also prepare to do business with a smaller staff than usual—with the awareness that availability of temporary employees may be limited as well. It’s recommended that businesses plan for a 25 percent reduction in staff with a contingency plan for 50 percent in order to cover the entire span of a pandemic. It is highly likely that we will witness another pandemic, and although we hope that medical care and technology will reduce its impact, it makes sense to plan for the worst-case scenario.
Now think outside of your own organization and imagine the impact. A pandemic would probably affect your business partners and value chain members as well, and you may not have the option to outsource or use alternative production means and channels that you would in other scenarios.
Fortunately, physical assets like plants, equipment, offices and infrastructure will not be affected. But the availability of the people needed to run and maintain them could erode your ability to support operations. The rate of erosion would depend on each asset, its dependencies, the maintenance it requires, and what backup resources are available.
Operating in this environment will be different from what you and your employees are accustomed to. Your organization’s survival will depend on being prepared and adapting to the new reality that a pandemic presents. Your planning team should look carefully at external and internal operational dependencies to understand the underlying infrastructure needs and the roles played by value chain members. All of these can be impacted, although the degree of impact and number of options available will vary and will change over time as a pandemic unfolds.
Planning and preparation can reduce the overall impact by reducing the severity of the pandemic waves on operations and staff, with employee protection being the primary focus.
In the face of a severe pandemic, market demands for your organization’s products and services will change from being nice-to-have to critical or not relevant. This change in demand may not follow the normal product life cycle, therefore clear communication and an ability to understand and accurately project the market’s response will be important. It will take a keen understanding of this dynamic situation to be able to navigate the uncertain times that a pandemic presents.
To prepare, you’ll need to identify and prioritize essential business functions and be prepared to suspend or reduce those that are non-essential. This includes both immediate and future consequences to the organization, others in the value chain, and customers and constituents. Everyone will be affected by both the incident and your organization’s responses.
Start by taking steps right now to protect your staff and minimize the impact on operations in the event of a pandemic. Make sure that your existing business continuity plans address a pandemic. If not, choose someone to start the planning process and work with executive leadership to integrate it into both the plan and company culture.
Begin your pandemic planning by determining what will invoke a response. How would you prioritize functions if you suffered a serious reduction in staff, suppliers or customers? How might the demand for your products and services fluctuate during wave cycles of a pandemic? How might your outsourced functions and supply chain members be affected during a pandemic? Answers to these questions will provide a foundation for your plan.
Development and implementation of your pandemic response plan should follow standard business continuity best practices: that means following a phased process that leads with risk analysis, moves through strategy and plan development, and wraps up with the implementation phase.
Mitigation and response strategies
Once your business impact analysis is completed and you fully understand the potential impact that a pandemic could have on your business as well as your customers, suppliers and operations, strategies that address the incident should be outlined. Areas and concerns to consider include:
- Human resources: employees who become ill or who must tend to ill family members will refer to absence and leave policies, as well as dependent care and safety policies for guidance.
- Operations: operating in a pandemic environment is very different from normal operations, so give special consideration to employee isolation and shifting schedules. Prepare for production schedule flexibility, personnel cross-training and succession, production automation where possible, backup and alternative processes, and, ideally, remote access options like telecommuting. Consider delivery service alternatives as well as substitute products and services, because a pandemic will affect every organization—including your suppliers.
- Supply and delivery chain: if your business relies on other businesses, you’ll need to coordinate plans, communicate directives, oversee pipeline management and make priority arrangements.
- Legal, regulatory and contractual requirements: though your customer, employee and supplier contracts were executed before a pandemic, the signers may not be able to follow through with the agreements due to absenteeism, travel restrictions, or product availability. It’s important to remember that regulations your organization is subject to, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), SOX, HIPAA, will all still apply.
- Customer and public service: finally, you must consider your essential public services and products, the demand for which is likely to fluctuate during a pandemic. Health officials may determine whether you can continue to serve your customers, if your operating hours must be modified, or even if you must close for a period.
Activating and sustaining
Pandemic planning success means having processes and procedures in place before an incident occurs. No one strategy will satisfy every organization’s risk and impact profiles. Two similar businesses may have very different response strategies (i.e., care for children at home versus have them come to work with employees). Both strategies are correct if developed around a sound process, but choosing the right strategy is a subjective determination based on management perspective and philosophy.
Once your plan has been developed and implemented, it must be maintained. First, manage mitigation measures and infrastructure changes. For example, purchase and install automated backup or failover systems to keep operations up and running in the event primary functions fail from lack of personnel. Set a schedule to conduct regular pandemic response team briefings on actions, the status of preparedness and approval of the detailed pandemic incident response plan, and make sure your contact database is complete, clean and current.
Heed the warnings
Hurricane Katrina, the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and now possibly the Zika virus, are all potent reminders of the importance of properly planning for impending disaster. One advantage of a pandemic is that it comes with some degree of warning. If you make your plans now so that you are ready to heed the warning, your organization stands a good chance of weathering an outbreak. As history has demonstrated, it’s well worth the time that it takes to make sure your organization and employees are properly prepared for a potential pandemic incident.
With more than 25 years of experience in business continuity and IT disaster recovery, Ann Pickren, holds an MBCI certification and currently serves as president and chief operating officer for MIR3, Inc..