How Can I Keep My Employees Safe from the Coronavirus?

Pandemic response plans, policies for workers in affected areas and keeping up-to-date information on hand are just a few ways to protect employees working near the coronavirus outbreaks.
By: | February 5, 2020

New reports covering  coronavirus reveal a situation that is changing daily and that businesses, especially those with work, travel or operations in or near the epicenter of Wuhan, China, need to follow closely.

As of early February, the number of dead reported from the virus was nearly 500, with all but two of those in China. In addition, 24,324 people were infected by the illness, and it had spread to 24 countries.

Hundreds of Americans were being evacuated from Wuhan, which is where the virus was first detected in December 2019, and placed in quarantine upon their arrival in the U.S. Major air carriers halted flights at least temporarily into mainland China, and The World Health Organization declared it an international public health emergency.

While the flu poses a greater threat to most people, the coronavirus is less well-understood and has generated concerns about how deadly it will be and how it is transmitted. The symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Reported illnesses have ranged from people displaying little to no symptoms to becoming severely ill and dying.

Michelle Tufnell, a doctor with the Anvil Group, a travel risk provider, recently held a webinar about the coronavirus that drew 85 of the company’s clients.

Participants had many questions about the symptoms of the virus, how it is spread, when someone is most contagious, who is most at risk and the potential for a vaccine against the illness.

“I think it’s really important to stay up-to-date on what’s going on with the virus. It’s changing rapidly,” Tufnell said.

Managing Business Risks

Businesses, of course, need to assess their own risks related to the virus.

“It will depend on how involved their businesses are in the affected area,” she said. “We expect there to be further restrictions [on travel], so it may be harder to bring people out of the area.”

The Anvil Group supplies a range of pandemic services including being a repository of information about the virus and its impact, sending emergency alerts, providing medical advice and offering access to clinicians.

“It’s up to a company to make decisions, but we can provide them with information,” Tufnell said.

David Richter, area senior vice president of the Multinational Benefits & Human Resources within Gallagher’s Benefits and HR Consulting Division, agrees that it’s important to get accurate information from reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. State Department and the World Health Organization.

“It’s evolving every day, so you need to go to authoritative sources,” he said.

Richter noted that he recently consulted with an American electronics company that had four employees doing work in Wuhan. The company asked the employees if they wanted to stay in the area to complete their work or leave.

The employees decided to stay, but their experience illustrates how changeable the situation can be. The employees had been notified that the hotel they were staying at would close due to the virus. They’d made arrangements to move to another hotel that was farther away but canceled that plan when it was decided their first hotel would stay open.

How to Talk to Your Employees About Coronavirus

Communication with employees about the virus should be targeted to their particular concerns and situations.

“If you have a large company with employees in China, they’re going to get a much different message then people in Germany,” said Michelle Bishop, UK growth leader for Gallagher Mobility CEO, Multinational Benefits Practice.

Just as the electronics company did, Richter said companies need to give their employees the option of staying in an affected area or not.

“It’s really about ‘Let’s do the right thing,’ ” he said.

At the same time there are other implications that companies need to consider, such as whether to allow employees to work at home in places with travel restrictions and what will their pay and sick policies be if an employee is put under quarantine.

Whether to shut down operations in an affected area is another concern. Starbucks, for instance, has temporarily closed more than half of its stores in China due to concerns about the spread of the virus. Hyundai announced in early February that it is suspending production in its South Korea manufacturing plants due to supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus outbreak in China.

The emergence of the coronavirus may be inspiring some companies to take another look at their pandemic plans that may not have been reviewed since the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s.

“A lot of companies created pandemic plans, and those were largely put in binders and sat on shelves. So those might be a bit stale,” Richter said.

“Having a response plan is such an advantage, particularly if you’re a large global company,” added Tufnell. &

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].