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Business Trends: Germ warfare

Having a flu prevention plan nothing to sneeze at for any company

By Joanne Friedrick
January 01, 2010

In sickness and in health isn't limited to wedding vows, as most business owners can attest. When employees get sick for an extended period, it can throw a monkey wrench into the best-designed plans for running a wholesale, retail or foodservice enterprise.

With the advent of the H1N1 virus in the United States last April - also known as swine flu - many businesses and food industry organizations have stepped up their approach to tackling the subject of employee health and 
disease prevention best practices.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, which monitors the spread and scope of H1N1, reports nearly 5,000 people were hospitalized for H1N1 between Aug. 30 and Oct. 10, 2009. Forty-five percent of those hospitalizations were among infant to 18-year-old patients, with another 48 percent covering ages 19 to 64. So nearly everyone within the workforce is impacted by H1N1 - both employees and their young children.

Because H1N1 is considered to be a particularly virulent strain of the flu, businesses are taking added precautions to prevent its spread and to ensure their facilities are safe environments for both employees and the public.

The National Restaurant Association teamed with Ecolab, a company that specializes in cleaning and sanitation products and services, on a webinar that explored the impact of the H1N1 pandemic and how foodservice operators should educate employees and guests on the risks of the virus.

First offered in May 2009, the online tutorial was repeated in September and drew about 1,000 participants, says Sue Hensley, senior VP-communications for the NRA, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Sanitation issues are a key part of the webinar and generated many questions, notes Hensley. Often people are unaware of how the virus is passed along, or how long it can live in certain environments. The H1N1 virus can survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 48 hours, and can be passed on to humans for up to a day. The virus has a shorter life span on cloth and paper surfaces - eight to 12 hours - and can be transferred to people within 15 minutes of infecting those products. On skin, the virus remains alive for about five minutes.

NRA's webinar, which is available for viewing or listening on the organization's Web site (www.restaurant.org), urges restaurateurs to think about their risk profile, develop a plan and share that information with employees.

Some of the webinar suggestions include providing alcohol-based hand sanitizer in the dining room, rest rooms and kitchen/prep areas, increasing the cleaning and sanitizing schedule throughout the building, and following strict food-safety procedures to prevent contamination.

The NRA doesn't track H1N1-specific prevention policies adopted by U.S. restaurants, but Hensley says members are interested in having information to create such plans. "We just want to provide effective resources," says Hensley.

In Spain, Silk and Soya, a Madrid restaurant, is billing itself as the world's first dining establishment with a plan to protect against H1N1. According to an Associated Press article, Silk and Soya monitors the temperatures of its servers, washes menus after each use, has moved tables farther apart and has wait staff use napkins to handle plates. Automation in the bathrooms means customers don't have to touch doorknobs, faucets or light switches.

As the flu season picks up (it typically peaks in January and February), Hensley says NRA "will monitor the situation … and we'll be working with the government to be a portal on changing guidance," she says, meaning NRA will update its Web site with H1N1-specific materials if the need arises. The association is also sharing information with other food-oriented organizations, she says, such as the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

At Adelphia Seafood, a wholesaler and seafood retailer in Reading, Pa., H1N1 is definitely on the radar of 
Jennifer Mazzocchi, the human resources manager.

The business was already strict about sanitation, she says, but in light of the pandemic flu threat, it educated 
employees on the signs and symptoms of the flu and ways to prevent it. As part of its mandatory quarterly employee training, Adelphia created its own Powerpoint presentation on H1N1, using materials from its health insurance provider and the CDC.

Hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes were placed throughout the building and individual tissue boxes were distributed to office staff, she says. The company conducted a seasonal flu shot clinic for its employees, and also posted a sanitation schedule in the break room, where workers have access to commonly used appliances, such as the microwave.

Mazzocchi, a mother of two children, has already experienced the swine flu firsthand, she says, and the business did have a higher than usual absentee rate because of illness for two to three weeks in the fall.

If the flu comes back and impacts Adelphia severely, she says, the company is prepared to hire temp workers in the production and warehouse areas. The biggest strain would be felt in other departments, she notes, because those have just one or two people on staff.

Once the flu season ends, Mazzocchi expects the company will continue with many of the new sanitation practices.

"In my opinion, it's a good practice going forward," she says. "In the food industry, you can never be too careful."


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South Portland, Maine


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