Freeman Offers Action Plan if Bird Flu Strikes

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Dallas, TX – Freeman has released a comprehensive contingency plan to keep its end of the exhibition industry running in the event the dreaded bird flu makes it to the U.S. and reaches epidemic proportions.

The plan, which highlights the labor-intensive nature of trade shows and conventions, was posted on the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) web site for other companies to refer to as they create their own plans for a possible outbreak.

“It is important to acknowledge the issue, develop a program and then provide training so employees know what to do,” said David Klutts, corporate director of risk management services for Freeman. “If you don’t share the information and turn it into knowledge, it’s useless.”

Crowds = Germs

Because large crowds, airline travel and frequent handshaking are inherent to trade shows, even a normal flu season can be cause for concern. However, bird flu offers worst-case scenarios in which scores of contractor employees and show attendees are put out of commission or simply stay home for several days if not weeks. If the outbreak is serious enough, local authorities could conceivably order the cancellation of an event altogether.
In a Feb. 2 briefing for reporters, Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that it would take an estimated six months to develop a vaccine against a particular strain of the bird flu should it come ashore in the U.S. Until then, Americans would generally be limited to keeping their hands washed and steering clear of offices, mass transit systems and other locations where people and their germs tend to congregate.

“We would be expecting communities to implement measures to increase the distance between people,” Gerberding said. “In other words, not come to large meetings or group settings…and to try to work from home or stay away from crowded areas so that you have less chance of coming in contact with any given person who is infected with the pandemic virus.”

The CDC considers cancellation of large events a fairly drastic step, one that would be only implemented during a serious Stage 4 or 5 pandemic, which are considered on par the with the great influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed around 675,000 Americans. Lesser stages would require largely that people wash their hands and stifle their sneezes when in public and that employees who are feeling stick stay home.

“Our plan does address several levels of severity. However, we would comply with local and federal government edicts as to whether or not an event would be held,” Klutts said.

Show Operations Vulnerable to Absenteeism

Still, a bad bout of the flu — bird or other variety – can trip up a company’s show operations if it hits a large number of its employees or the staff of a critical supplier or contractor such as Freeman. Show managers could be at risk themselves if, for example, their contractors can’t muster up enough healthy workers to set up their show on time.

Freeman’s planning document noted, “Unlike a natural disaster, disruption of business operation in a pandemic is anticipated to be mainly human-resource oriented with absentee rates up to 50 percent in a severe outbreak and lesser but still significant numbers in milder occurrences.”

The Show Must Go On

Nevertheless, Freeman devised a chain-of-command and proactive plan so that all bases would be covered in the event that an emergency is dire enough that shows must scramble to find healthy workers or even relocate to other cities with little advance warning. Virtually every department within the company has a role to play with the entire process overseen by a planning group and even a crisis command center in the executive suites to monitor the spread of the flu.

Planning Group: Act as official point of contact with health officials. Review the plan on a regular basis with an eye toward its effects on shows scheduled over the next several months.

Risk Management: Review all company contracts with vendors as well as company policies regarding sick leave, vacation, workers’ compensation, temporary staffing, business travel and the deaths of workers.

Human Resources: Develop a threshold for closing down the office for several weeks if necessary. Evaluate sick leave, bereavement and caregiver leave. Plan for the hiring of temporary workers, which could include expediting training programs, drug testing and background checks.

Facilities: Make sure the building is clean and well ventilated. Develop procedures for keeping sick delivery and repair personnel out of the building.

Information Technology: Expand telecommuting capabilities for as many employees as possible. Find a company to provide backup IT support if needed.

Corporate Communications: Issue news releases to the media as needed. Provide employees with frequent and regular updates in the pandemic and the impact it is having on the company. Develop a plan for customer service communications with customers and convention centers.

Legal Counsel: Review contracts pertaining to buildings, alternate work sites as well as union labor contracts in regards to identifying sick workers and turning them away from a job site.

Safety: Secure buildings that are closed down. Deny entry to sick employees who refuse to stay home.

Operations: Develop plans for replacing workers and dispatching employees to shows in other cities. Find alternate suppliers and maintain cleanliness of supplies and equipment.

Finance: Develop a plan for emergency authorization of an employee(s) to write checks and perform other money-handling tasks in the event the regular people are all out sick.

The CDC says there is no indication that the bird flu will indeed reach the U.S. in the near future or that it will necessarily be a strain that could be rapidly passed among humans. At the same time, the disease is not dying  out in Asia and was reported on a British turkey farm in February. While the best of modern medical science is at work on ways to prevent an outbreak, trade show organizers are advised to heed the old homily that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Reach David Klutts at (214) 670-9000 or david.klutts@freemanco.com