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Presenteeism, Bird Flu Won't Mix, Firms Say

If the disease spreads among humans, it may require a change in corporate mind-set.

May 08, 2006|From Reuters

As major U.S. companies brace for the threat of bird flu mutating into a form that could jump from human to human, they face one unusual challenge: persuading employees to stay home.

"We're going to have to get over the mind-set that you can't be productive from home," said Andrew Spacone, crisis manager at Textron Inc., a $9.5-billion-a-year maker of products including Cessna jets and E-Z-GO golf carts.

"At some point -- earlier as opposed to later in a pandemic situation -- we will be telling employees not to come in to work," said Spacone, who spearheads disaster planning for the Providence, R.I.-based company's 47,000 employees worldwide.

"Bringing somebody into the office to do something for another day, if that person becomes infected or ill or infects other people -- the loss is going to far outweigh having that person stay home that day," Spacone said.

Bird flu in its current form affects mostly birds. But 206 people in nine countries have contracted the disease, mostly by being exposed to sick birds, and 114 have died.

Experts worry that the H5N1 virus, which causes the disease, will mutate enough to pass easily among people and cause a pandemic and millions of deaths.

About 76% of manufacturing executives believe human bird flu would take a toll on their operations, according to a survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. But only 20% have allocated funds to prepare for the threat.

At several major U.S. manufacturers, executives are focused on three key elements -- spreading staffers out to reduce the chance of infection; focusing on crucial functions and pulling back on noncore work; and ensuring that backup sources are available for both raw materials and outsourced operations.

"We have an entire team of people that have worked globally on kind of a plan for each of our operating companies," said George Nolen, chief executive of the North American unit of German industrial conglomerate Siemens.

Because seasonal flu is transmitted through human contact, such as handshakes and sneezes, one of the first steps companies would take in an outbreak would be to spread out employees.

That means having staffers work swing shifts so that offices can be less crowded, sending employees home with laptops or dispersing top executives across cities or countries to reduce the odds they would all be sick at the same time.

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