Fighting the flu

This little piggy went to market and this little piggy stayed home….” And therein lies the problem.

While the nation’s lawmakers debate such weighty issues as the economy and health care, with all the style and grace of grade-schoolers, something with the potential to derail both is lurking in the background. It is the H1N1 virus—or Swine Flu—a distant cousin of the strain that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic that may have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide.

Of course that was before there were any vaccines at all and an unlikely scenario today. But I find it interesting and disturbing how many people in the food industry think H1N1 is just headline-hungry media hype, a make-work issue for bureaucrats who have too much time on their hands after lunch or as big a sham as Y2K.

There’s always a danger that reaction to something like this will be worse than the disease itself and if we’re lucky it will result in nothing more than sniffles, fever, muscle pain and chills. Not a pleasant prospect, but far from fatal. But H1N1 is already classified as a pandemic and if history repeats itself the second wave of a pandemic is always bigger than the first. Are you willing to risk losing billions in sales, wages and productivity?

Before you dismiss the issue out of hand, think of the potential consequences—processing plant employees, delivery drivers, the kids who stock the shelves, cashiers, buyers, merchandisers and even the guy who shows up once a week to fix the self-service checkout that’s always breaking down. Those self-service units, by the way, will be more important than ever as fewer cashiers are able to make it into work.

And it’s not just about the health of employees, but those who might be forced to stay home to care for sick children or other family members or simply have to stay home if schools decide to close.

I’m a great believer in hoping for the best and planning for the worst—a wise strategy for retailers whose workforce is largely made up of the group that is most vulnerable—young adults. As such, a simple, but well thought out contingency plan can keep the doors open if half your regular staff is stricken.

The business impact of H1N1 is the subject of a national survey by the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that only one-third of businesses could stay open if their workforce was out sick for two weeks. More than half of respondents believe a widespread outbreak of H1N1 is just round the corner and if it does happen 84% believe they will be negatively affected.

As Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard noted: “Businesses need to start planning how to adjust their operations for greater absenteeism and to slow the spread of H1N1 in the workplace.”

Nothing is going to stop H1N1—especially in a person-to-person environment like supermarkets. But there are some simple solutions that might enable you to avoid a widespread outbreak or at least contain it:

•Prepare a crisis management plan that outlines new sources for part-time employees to fill the gap and, if necessary, alternate sources of supply.

•Stagger shifts to minimize contact between employees.

•Suspend or reschedule meetings and business travel and opt for phone conferences.

•Relax rules about getting doctors notes before returning to work since even getting to a doctor may be difficult.

•Send infected employees home immediately and instruct them to stay there until 24 hours after a fever breaks.

•Provide store personnel with bottles of waterless hand cleaners and disposable wipes and make sure washrooms have adequate supplies of soap, towels and sanitizers.

•Enforce the use of disposable gloves in food prep areas.

•Sign up for email alerts from reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

•Offer employees access to advice and treatment.

•Check with vendors on their level of preparedness.

Finally…

Take two aspirin and call me in the morning—if you can. 
 
Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at lenlewis@optonline.net or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.

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