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Sun, Jun 11, 2006 - Page 12 News List

US businesses take no chances as bird flu looms


Bird flu has yet to develop the ability to jump from human to human and become a pandemic, but many businesses are not waiting to find out if it will.

Some companies are going so far as to set entire buildings aside as "clean facilities" in which workers and families would remain during a bird flu outbreak. At least two financial institutions are setting up such voluntary quarantines and two utilities are considering it, according to Gary Lynch, national practice leader for business continuity risk management at Marsh Inc. He said the companies plan to pay premiums and offer antiviral drugs to employees who take part.

Most companies' steps are less extreme, such as making sure that key employees can work from home. But companies large and small are advised to have plans for the enormous work force disruptions that bird flu might bring.

"It's going to be every company for itself," said Mark Mansour, a partner with the Foley & Lardner law firm in Washington, who has been advising companies on their preparations. At least one, he said, has pored over its workers' upcoming travel plans and eliminated trips to potential bird flu hot spots.

Generally, big companies and those that do business in Asia -- which has suffered more than 100 bird flu deaths and the 2003 SARS outbreak -- began preparing first.

For example, DuPont Co is considering giving employees kits with masks and disinfectant and is assessing ways to continue manufacturing with reduced staffing. Sun Microsystems Inc plans to keep workers informed over its intranet radio station.

Now, however, fears that the H5N1 virus that causes bird flu could begin to spread internationally are promoting small businesses to consider their options as well.

Bird flu sparked a crisis meeting last month at Ervin and Smith, a 40-person public-relations firm based in Omaha, Nebraska. The firm is arranging to have freelancers on call if staffers fall ill.

At Childs Capital, a New York-based investment firm, founder Donna Childs has informed the staff they should work remotely if the flu cripples public transportation to the company's Wall Street office. Meanwhile, Childs would use a service that can open and scan the firm's mail so its bills could be paid online.

And Childs has gone a bit further, following lessons learned firsthand in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when her apartment building near the World Trade Center was evacuated and her office closed for a week.

One thing she realized then was the importance of keeping extra cash around, a step she plans to repeat in case of bird flu, even if bank shutdowns are unlikely.

Employees are also trained to handle multiple responsibilities in case other members of the staff are unavailable.

"Overall, I think people should think about what would happen if you couldn't work in your premises for whatever reason," said Childs, who has co-authored a book about how small businesses should get ready for big disruptions. "That would prepare you for most threats."

Not everyone can telecommute, of course. That's why Andrew Spacone, who heads crisis planning at Providence, Rhode Island-based manufacturer Textron Inc, has been mulling other ideas.

One is to make sure that company cafeterias are using disposable cups and utensils, eliminating the risk of spreading the virus through poorly washed silverware.

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