Worker illness slows productivity in any firm, but small firms hit hard during the flu season can see more than half of their staff out sick and business grinding to a halt.

With the sniffles, sneezes and worse approaching, business owners need to start taking charge of how to prepare for a potential pandemic.

"Looking at today’s headlines about the severity of the wildfires in California, it’s important for small, medium and large businesses to look at H1N1 preparation as a complement to preparation for ... any type of threat or hazard," says Matthew Eggers, manager of the National Security & Emergency Preparedness Department at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Businesses should take an all-hazards approach to planning ad preparedness because 25% of businesses that close following a major disaster do not reopen.”

Experts are advising businesses to focus on keeping employees healthy and maintaining business continuity, says Eggers.

“With H1NI, absenteeism may likely be the central issue that businesses really wrestle with during the flu season,” he says. The chamber has partnered with the Trust for America’s Health to develop a flu preparation guide for businesses that is available now on the chamber’s Web site.

A lot of expert tips are common sense, such as reviewing a preparedness plan, keeping away from a workplace if you have a fever and working on reducing the transmission of illness by using a cough etiquette and washing hands. Eggers recommends that business owners review the government Web site full of flu news, updates and other information.

Businesses also should think about repercussions from school closings. "It’s really important that a business owner communicate with the workforce in the event that a school closes and think about updating sick leave and family and medical leave policies," he says, adding that "telecommuting is another tool in the toolbox."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released guidance for businesses to aid them in preparing for a rough winter.

CDC Public Affairs Officer Artealia Gilliard says the smaller the business and the less resources available “the more a business would want to implement prevention and planning now.”

She recommends businesses follow these nine steps recommended by the CDC:

    Review or establish a flexible influenza pandemic plan and involve your employees in developing and reviewing your plan.

    Conduct a focused discussion or exercise using your plan to find out ahead of time whether the plan has gaps or problems that need to be corrected before flu season.

    Understand your organization’s normal seasonal absenteeism rates and know how to monitor your personnel for any unusual increases in absenteeism through the fall and winter.

    Engage state and local health departments to confirm channels of communication and methods for dissemination of local outbreak information.

    Allow sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.

    Develop other flexible leave policies to allow workers to stay home to care for sick family members or for children if schools dismiss students or child care programs close.

    Share your influenza pandemic plan with employees and explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available to them.

    Share best practices with other businesses in your communities (especially those in your supply chain), chambers of commerce and associations to improve community response efforts.

    Add a “widget” or “button” to your company Web page so employees can access the latest information on influenza.

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