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WASHINGTONEmployers should plan now for an influenza pandemic, according to the head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"A severe pandemic in our country could have a devastating effect on our nation's" workplaces, said Edwin G. Foulke Jr., the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA. "Proper planning and preparation now saves lives in the future."
His comments came as OSHA released its "Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic" last week.
The guidance divides workplaces into four levels of risk ranging from "low" to "very high" based on proximity of workers to infected people. For example, health care facilities that require workers to have direct contact with infected people would fall into the "high" or "very high" risk categories, according to the guidance. But most work environments would fall into the "low" or "medium" risk category, said OSHA Deputy Director Amanda Edens.
The guidance offers specific recommendations for each risk level as well as some general advice (see box).
In addition, employers should cross-train at least three employees to carry out critical business functions should a pandemic strike, Ms. Edens said.
The cross-training provision is included in the guidance's recommendation that employers develop a disaster plan. The plan should include taking steps to prepare for operations with a reduced workforce as well as working with suppliers to ensure continuation of operations, and stockpiling items such as soap, hand sanitizer and personal protection equipment. The disaster plan should have employers "plan for downsizing but also anticipate any scenario which may require a surge in your services."
The document released last week is not necessarily OSHA's last word on the issue, Mr. Foulke said.
"Additional guidance may be needed if an actual pandemic unfolds," he said.
A spokeswoman for the American Society of Safety Engineers in Des Plaines, Ill., welcomed the document.
"It's very important because we have been encouraging our members to pass the word along to their businesses and employers about how important it is to be prepared for a possible influenza pandemic," said the spokeswoman. She said interest in the issue led the ASSE's health care practice specialty to develop "tips on how businesses can prepare and what they can do should a pandemic hit."
The guidance is available at www.osha.gov.