Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by an influenza virus. An influenza pandemic is a global outbreak caused by a new influenza virus that spreads easily from person to person. An influenza pandemic can cause serious illness because people have little to no immunity to the virus.

Outbreaks of influenza have been known to occur for centuries. Three influenza pandemics – Spanish in 1918, Asian in 1957 and Hong Kong in 1968 – killed more than 50 million people worldwide. Historical patterns suggest that influenza pandemics occur, on average, three to four times each century when a new virus subtype emerges that is readily transmitted from person to person.

The H1N1 influenza virus has been reported around the world. H1N1 is a strain of the influenza virus that in the past, usually only affected pigs. In spring 2009, it emerged in people in North America. This was a new strain of influenza and because humans had little to no natural immunity to this virus, it had the potential to cause serious and widespread illness. In August 2010, the World Health Organization declared that the H1N1 pandemic had entered the post-pandemic period. This decision was informed by epidemiological evidence from around the world showing the H1N1 influenza virus circulating at lower levels and taking on the behaviour of a seasonal influenza virus. Influenza viruses, including the pandemic H1N1 virus, are suspected to continually change, or mutate, over time. A major mutation is different in that it signals a new virus to which the population will have no immunity, which was the case with H1N1 influenza virus. To ensure that we know if and when major mutations happen, Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory and labs around the world are monitoring the virus for changes regularly. (http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/alertalerte/ h1n1/faq/ faq_rg_h1n1-afveng. php#q1)

Effective planning to reduce the illness and deaths associated with an influenza pandemic remain underway at all levels of government.

The Ministry of Labour (MOL) is working closely with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion to monitor the outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus. The MOL has developed tools and guidelines to help employers and workers prevent and manage the spread of the virus. These guidelines reflect the “precautionary principle.” The “precautionary principle,” established by the Honourable Mr. Justice Archie Campbell, in the final report of the SARS Commission Report (Spring of Fear, December 2006) states: “We cannot wait for scientific certainty before we take reasonable steps to reduce risk.”

In addition, employers are required to comply with applicable provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations as well as applicable provisions contained in the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act and the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

Employers working towards the development of an Influenza Pandemic Plan ought to consider the following basic principles.

  • Communication Strategy – Develop a crisis communication plan and provide timely and accurate information to your workers through a team designated to serve as a communication source.  
  • Vaccination Program – Encourage workers to get vaccinated for the seasonal influenza.  
  • Training and Education – Provide training and education to workers on the basics of influenza transmission and types of personal protective equipment required (if any).  
  • Managing Absenteeism – Develop policies that encourage ill employees to stay home without fear of reprisal. Ensure that the policies are flexible and consistent with public health information/ guidance.  
  • Childcare – Be prepared to allow workers to stay home to care for their children if schools and/or day cares are closed. Strongly recommend that parents not bring their children to work if schools are dismissed.