FocusUS chems brace for potential swine flu absences

03 September 2009 15:01  [Source: ICIS news]

Swine flu could become an issue for chemsBy Ben DuBose

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--The US operations of several major chemical companies stressed preventative measures on Thursday as they prepare for an anticipated second swine flu (H1N1) outbreak in North America.

“We are closely monitoring the developing scenario involving H1N1 flu, and are in the initial stages of implementing our plans in line with recommendations of the World Health Organization,” LyondellBasell spokesman David Harpole said.

“A coordination team is working together with local focal points to assess information being communicated by health authorities worldwide and to prepare regional action plans as the situation merits,” he added.

Last week, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) warned that swine flu could infect up to half of the US population this North American autumn and winter, hospitalising as many as 1.8m and causing up to 90,000 deaths, three times the mortality of a typical flu season.

As a result, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spent much of the summer warning employers about potential of widespread absences as the virus travels and mutates around the globe.

The CDC has asked companies to allow employees to stay home if they are sick, without fear of losing their jobs. In addition, the CDC is asking companies to waive any requirements for a doctor’s note to validate an illness due to the expected high demand for medical care.

To that end, Eastman Chemical said its mitigation plans include more remote work as well as social distancing.

“IT programs and functionality are being expanded and tested to support working from home as needed,” said Bill Hendon, corporate safety and security manager with Eastman.

Vaccines for swine flu are not expected to be available until mid-October at the earliest, according to news reports. But even so, the prognosis for those afflicted does not appear as dire as it did in the spring.

Back then, the CDC recommended staying home at least seven days from the onset of flu symptoms. For the fall, that figure has been reduced to 24 hours.

“In the great majority of cases, H1N1 continues to be a relatively mild disease,” Shell spokesman Bill Tanner said.

“In addition to tracking cases of H1N1 among employees, we are also engaged in internal educational efforts to remind employees to consider treatment for suspected cases as quickly as possible to avoid the illness spreading,” he added.

Shell said it has influenza response teams in place who are designing contingency plans for production facilities in the event of widespread absenteeism. The specifics of those plans, however, would not be unveiled until a situation dictates them as necessary, the company said.

Likewise, Eastman said it already had plans in place to mitigate any production loss, including building product inventories high enough to withstand a temporary disruption.

Shell, LyondellBasell, Eastman and Huntsman all said they would emphasise basic hygiene practices as well, such as washing hands frequently with soap and water and increasing the cleaning of surfaces and handles at most office locations.

“One of the key actions that we are taking at this time is increased communication to employees to remind them of protective measures that they can take to avoid becoming ill,” Harpole said.

“From a business perspective, our objective is to minimise the interruption of our ability to make, sell and deliver our products to customers,” he added.

To date, the H1N1 virus has caused 556 US deaths and 2,184 deaths worldwide, with more than 209,000 cases reported globally, the CDC said.

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