The expected second wave of swine flu could see poultry businesses struggling to cope with staff shortages this winter.

There are already reports of major food companies, such as Sainsbury’s, preparing to deal with an expected surge in staff absence.

This comes after last month’s warning by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) that employers should brace themselves for swine flu absence rates of up to 50% for periods of between two and four weeks over the coming months.

On top of this, last month’s news that two flocks of turkeys became infected with the H1N1 virus after being in contact with infected workers highlighted the potential risk to poultry health.

So what can poultry businesses do to minimise the impact on their business? And how do they minimise risk to their birds?

Preparing for staff shortages

In joint guidance issued with the Business Continuity Institute, the CIPD recommends employers start by identifying staff who have interchangeable and key skills, as well as considering back-up from external sources.

“Consider training staff in critical areas so employees have the skills to fill in for absent colleagues.”

However, David Green, partner and head of the employment and pensions service group, Charles Russell warned that where employees are willing to work longer hours as a result of absences, employers must ensure that they meet the requirements of the Working Time Regulations.

For example, you must ensure they have adequate rest breaks and that they have signed an opt-out agreement.

Finally, it may be worth investigating the availability and cost of medical schemes which offer employees fast access to anti-viral treatments such as Tamiflu. This could help cut the time workers are off sick, said Mr Green.

In its advice, the NFU suggests co-ordinating with others. “Find out about any pandemic planning in your area, for example, regional resilience teams and local resilience forums.

“How will your neighbouring farmers respond to a pandemic and can you work together if your staff are ill? The government has encouraged members of the public to establish a network of “flu friends”, so why not establish a network of “flu farmers”?”

Health advice to staff

Moving on to staff health, Mr Green urges employers to look at reducing or preventing the spread of infection in the workplace.

One example is by promoting an environment where workers who feel unwell are not afraid to inform their employer and go home until they are well.

Also, ensure your absence/sickness policy explains how you will deal with someone who has flu-like symptoms at work or who has been exposed to someone who has, or may have, those symptoms. Decide how any such absence will be treated (paid or unpaid) and review any return-to-work procedures.

There may be problems with “worried well” employees who refuse to come to work as they are anxious about the risks. Consider how to treat them; raising awareness of the facts should minimise scaremongering.

Ensure training is given on hygiene issues to minimise the risk of spreading the disease and encourage good hygiene practices. Consider other hygiene measures, such as the installation of antiseptic hand-gel dispensers, encouraging hand-washing and the use of tissues. Finally, ensure thorough cleaning of all work surfaces.

A good way of reminding employees and visitors of their responsibilities is by putting up signs. These are particularly useful for discouraging staff and visitors with flu symptoms from entering the workplace.

Minimising risk to birds

While the poultry sector already has good measures in place as a result of the H5N1 avian flu risk, it is still worthwhile for poultry businesses to review their biosecurity measures.

According to DEFRA advice, flu viruses are transmitted by the spread of respiratory secretions, mostly via direct contact short-distance aerosol spread. Aerosols from humans, such as sneezing, typically travel for 1-2m (3.3-6.6ft).

Therefore, an obvious precaution is for staff with any clinical signs of flu or who are in close contact with someone with flu to avoid coming into direct contact with birds.

Other tips include preventing unnecessary personnel or vehicles coming into units and ensuring necessary visitors to follow biosecurity protocols.