Newspaper headlines today urge Canadians to avoid travel to Mexico unless absolutely necessary, given the current health risk. Swine Influenza (Swine Flu) has killed approximately 150 people and infected approximately 2000 globally, with the highest concentration of outbreak reported in Mexico. Although none of the 13 reported cases in Canada have been fatal, the Canadian Chief Public Health Officer, David Butler-Jones, told reporters in Ottawa earlier this week, "We will likely see more cases, we will likely see more severe illnesses and we will likely, unfortunately, see some deaths as well."

Given the widespread presence of the virus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) says that containment of the outbreak is not feasible. The current focus, she indicated, should be on mitigation measures.

Symptoms and Transmission

Swine Flu is a highly contagious acute respiratory disease, with flu-like symptoms. The virus can be transmitted human-to-human, like the human seasonal flu virus is transmitted, through coughing, sneezing and coming in contact with a person or object with the virus. People may also become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.

Legal Considerations

The same legal considerations that apply to employees who are unable to work due to illness apply to employees who fall ill or who are quarantined during this Swine Flu outbreak. These legal considerations include obligations under employment standards, human rights, occupational health and safety, workers compensation and privacy legislation. It is important to review employment policies, benefit plans, employment contracts, collective agreements and applicable legislation to ensure that you are aware of potential legal consequences before a pandemic strikes.

Tips for Employers

Below are some tips for employers to prepare for a possible Swine Flu pandemic:

1. Prevention

  • Alert employees as to the symptoms and risks associated with Swine Flu, as well as prevention measures.
  • Encourage employees to wash their hands prior to commencing work, after sneezing and coughing, and after they touch objects that may have been in contact with people exhibiting Swine Flu symptoms.
  • Encourage employees not to touch surfaces that may be contaminated with the flu virus and to avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Provide hand sanitizers and respiratory masks, where appropriate.
  • Review cleaning procedures in place to regularly disinfect equipment, work stations and the workplace generally.
  • Consider introducing a policy requiring disclosure of employee personal travel to a Swine Flu "hotspot" such as Mexico, and a return to work guideline that outlines whether employees returning from a Swine Flu hotspot will be required to absent themselves from the workplace and whether they will be eligible to apply for sick pay or be otherwise paid for time away from work.

2. Containment

  • Require sick employees to stay home.
  • Consider accommodating quarantined employees by use of alternative work arrangements.

3. Prepare for potential work refusals

  • Ensure that supervisors and managers are familiar with work refusal obligations and steps as required under applicable health and safety legislation.

4. Establish a pandemic preparation and response team

  • Identify a team responsible to plan for a pandemic, including representatives with expertise in human resources, operations, health and safety and communications.

5. Prepare a plan

  • If the employer is part of a global corporate plan, consider how the plan can be implemented locally and how it may need to be adjusted on local leave.
  • Establish a process to obtain and implement public health directives.

6. Consider whether to operate or not

  • Determine to what extent the business can operate in the event of a pandemic.
  • Assess staffing needs, including alternative work locations, overtime agreements, and alternative means of getting work done without direct human-to-human contact (e.g., via teleconferencing and video-conferencing).
  • Assess the effect of a pandemic on suppliers, service providers and customers.
  • Consider how much time is needed for an orderly shutdown, if necessary.
  • Review insurance coverage and relevant agreements to determine how the employer can meet contract terms if it decides not to operate.

7. Security Considerations

  • Consider whether the employer’s facility is secure, in anticipation of possible service (e.g., hydro, water) reductions, reduced staffing levels and the possible need to shut down, without much, if any, warning.

8. Determine sickness/disability coverage

  • Contact insurers to determine sickness/disability coverage, including for employees who have been ordered to stay in quarantine but who are not sick.

9. Determine obligation to permit employee to be absent from work to care for sick family members

  • Review applicable legislation and obligations to determine if employees are entitled to emergency, family and/or other legislated leaves to care for sick family members.

10. Communication

  • Determine who will be responsible for issuing communications.
  • Provide information to employees about Swine Flu and associated symptoms and risks.
  • Carefully and clearly communicate information, policies and procedures to all employees.
  • Ensure employees get regular, updated training and information on hazards and hazard identification.
  • Establish a system for employees to report their status during a pandemic, including what information they are required to communicate (and how) to the employer and when they are expected to NOT report to work.
  • Ensure employee and employee emergency contact information is up to date.
  • Inform employees of how the employer will communicate with them in the event of an emergency.

11. Visitors

  • Where applicable, consider asking visitors to complete questionnaires in advance of attending the workplace to identify visitors who have Swine Flu symptoms or who may have had contact with a person infected with Swine Flu.
  • Ask visitors to provide information as to where and how they may be contacted after their visit, in the event that Swine Flu develops in the workplace and they need to be notified.