How can businesses stay safe during a virus outbreak?

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There are many steps organisations can take to prevent and control the outbreak of coronavirus, but employee welfare must take priority

The annual GSMA Mobile World Congress is the largest must-attend event for the global telecoms industry. So when Swedish networking and telecommunications giant Ericsson announced it was withdrawing from this year’s event it caused a major stir. The company then revealed that the coronavirus outbreak was the reason for its withdrawal, posing question marks over other global events.

In a statement Börje Ekholm, Ericsson’s president and CEO, said that the company took the precautionary measure after undertaking an “extensive” internal risk assessment.

“The health and safety of our employees, customers and other stakeholders is our highest priority,” said Ekholm. “This is not a decision we have taken lightly... it is very unfortunate, but we strongly believe the most responsible business decision is to withdraw our participation from this year’s event.”

Ericsson isn’t the only major business to take dramatic action to ward off the threat of coronavirus.

In China, where the virus started, a number of international businesses including the likes of Starbucks, Disney and McDonald’s temporarily halted operations.

Manufacturers also closed down plants and international airlines suspended travel to some parts of the country. At the end of January the UK government advised against all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China.

As the spread of coronavirus showed no signs of abating when HR magazine went to press, other companies were weighing up how they could mitigate the threat of the virus. They were also assessing their legal obligations towards employees in terms of health and safety legislation.

Yet finding a company willing to speak on the record about its plans proved difficult. All but one of the HRDs contacted for comment for this article either declined or didn’t respond.

One HRD from a large publishing company whose workers regularly travel overseas to attend trade conferences was willing to speak, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

He says the business has implemented a number of different risk mitigation protocols. These include installing hand sanitisers at each entrance and exit point at its offices in the UK and overseas. In addition, antibacterial wipes have been provided for each bank of desks within offices so that work surfaces can be kept clean.

Staff have also been told that if they have cold or flu-like symptoms, including a high temperature, they should stay off work and seek medical advice. But the HRD says the major issue the company faces is that the situation surrounding the spread of coronavirus is ‘fluid’ and constantly evolving.

Regardless of the current threat level, the starting point for any business looking to put in place contingency plans to deal with the spread of something like coronavirus is to undertake a risk assessment to determine the likely risk to the business and its employees, according to Mark Kaye, senior associate at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

“Employers have a duty to ensure that they protect the health and safety of their employees,” says Kaye. “Correspondingly, employees are required to co-operate and to follow reasonable and lawful instructions – a failure to do so could result in disciplinary action being taken against them.”

Kaye says that some of the steps that need to be considered and potentially implemented include: prohibiting business trips to China, imposing an obligation to work remotely for a 14-day quarantine period following return from specified infected zones, providing information about hygiene standards that should be adopted, providing hand sanitisers at all exit and entry points, and enhancing existing office cleaning services.

According to Kate Ledwidge, senior associate in the employment team at JMW, another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is the likelihood of a steep increase in employee requests to work from home.

“Employees are also more likely to take ‘precautionary’ sick days and ask increasingly difficult questions about action being taken to protect them from the virus in the workplace,” says Ledwidge.

“Employers need to give thought to the practical impact this could have on their workplace. They need to ensure they minimise potential disruption to business continuity and put the appropriate measures in place to protect staff from a health and safety perspective.”

It’s a view shared by Rhona Darbyshire, a partner and head of the employment team at Cripps PG.

“It’s not only thinking about whether [overseas] travel is essential, but also can the business accommodate the fact that someone is travelling in China or a high-risk country and they may need to factor in an up to two-week confinement period. There is also the risk that they [employees] may end up getting stuck out there so can the business function without them?”

While home working may be possible in some instances, for many employees facing a quarantine obligation remote working may not be feasible, says Kaye.

“Such individuals will be entitled to be paid for any period that they are required by their employer to remain in quarantine, on condition that they are otherwise willing and able to attend for work,” he says.

“Employees who are off sick will be entitled to company or statutory sick pay, depending on their individual circumstances. Consideration should be given as to whether the requirement to provide a ‘fit note’ should be waived for employees who have been told not to attend their GP’s surgery.”

Darbyshire adds that companies that have employees who are potentially travelling to coronavirus hot spots also need to look at the terms of their travel insurance to ensure they’re covered for all eventualities.

“You should check to make sure it’s not invalid if the government advice is not to go to a country. You should also check your liability insurance to make sure it would cover you if something happens,” she says.

Regardless of individual circumstances the key thing that all companies need to do is reassure staff and take a common-sense approach.

“It is crucial that employees tell you immediately if they have recently returned from an affected region or have come into contact with someone who has done so – or otherwise who is suspected of suffering from the virus – and to take strict precautions,” says Ledwidge. “Otherwise the workplace should continue to function as normal, and business policies on working from home and sickness absence must be followed.”

She adds that many large employers, particularly those providing business-critical services, are well equipped to cope with any issue arising from the coronavirus outbreak having learned lessons during previous pandemics, such as the SARS and the avian flu outbreaks in the 2000s.

“Those who actively developed a pragmatic business-wide approach, and provided communications about this, tended to fare significantly better in minimising any negative impact.

It helps to allay fears and, importantly from an HR perspective, sets the right boundaries for staff members,” says Ledwidge.

We’re still at the early stages of this outbreak and the situation is likely to evolve and change over the coming weeks and months. As a result, Kaye advises HR teams to remain vigilant, be flexible in their approach and be prepared to respond to changing levels of risk.

This piece appears in the March 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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