Swine Flu & The Workplace

There is no doubt that swine flu will have an effect on businesses this year. We recommend that employers consider how continuity of services can be maintained if employees are affected by this illness. While the workplace is not a causative factor, employers should implement preventative measures to minimise the risk of an outbreak. Reports indicate that strict adherence to hygiene is one of the most important issues, particularly in respect of hand hygiene. It is recommended that employers provide and encourage proper hand washing and regular cleaning of all hard surfaces including door handles, light switches and work surfaces with anti-bacterial sprays or wipes. The use and proper disposal of tissues for employees who are coughing or sneezing is imperative and regular sanitising of equipment such as computer keyboards, phones and tills will help maintain a hygienic work environment.

As an employer you should consider the continuity of services as absenteeism is predicted to reach a peak of 40%. Are there trained replacement personnel available at short notice for critical services and processes? Could work processes be changed even on a temporary basis to allow employees work from home for example? Face to face visits with clients and suppliers might be replaced with conference calling.

You should also consider what your policy is in terms of sick pay if you do not currently have a sick pay scheme. There is no obligation for employers in Ireland to pay employees out sick unless it is included in their Terms & Conditions of Employment. Under the Safety Health & Welfare at Work Act 2005, the employer is obliged to provide a safe place of work and may insist on staff staying away from the workplace on this basis. It may be worth considering introducing specific swine flu policies to guide staff in the event that the contract the flu. Deliberate breach or ignorance of such a policy should be a disciplinary matter and staff should be made aware of the possible consequences.

In emergency situations, your staff may be entitled to paid Force Majeure Leave under the Parental Leave Act 1998. Such leave is only available in restricted emergency circumstances and for a maximum of 3 days in one year or 5 days in 3 years. This leave can only be availed of if certain close family members and only applies if the family member is actually ill or injured and the immediate presence of the employee is required. There is no minimum period of employment required for an employee to be entitled to force majeure leave.
More Information for businesses is available from www.forfas.ie, www.enterprise-ireland.com and www.idaireland.com. A National Pandemic Influenza Plan is available from www.hse.ie and www.dohc.ie An excellent document with advise for businesses on preparing for an Epidemic is available at http://www.hse.ie/eng/swineflu/detebcm.pdf. The information guides employers through an implementation plan and even has case studies for various business types. Well worth a look!

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