Firms prepare for flu onslaught

Jenny Chiem of Brockton, a team leader at Smith & Nephew in Mansfield, sanitizes her hands at one of the numerous sanitizing stations set up throughout the company as part of an effort to avoid the flu. (Staff photo by Tom Maguire)

Just when the economy seemed to be bottoming out after the biggest economic virus since the Great Depression, along comes the H1N1 flu.

Area companies say they're stressing hand-washing, cough etiquette and recommending that employees stay home if they feel ill in hopes of avoiding disruptions in business that could result from a major outbreak.

Companies like V-Tron Electronics of Attleboro have just begun seeing business improve after the disasterous stretch that followed last year's banking collapse, company President Doug Gobin said.

A major hit in which many employees would be out of work at once is the last thing businesses need.

"Are we concerned?" Gobin said. "We're scared to death."

But like most companies, V-Tron isn't just sitting around waiting for the worst.

The company has distributed germicidal hand-washing dispensers, put up signs and urged workers to stay home if they they are coming down with flu-like symptoms.

Other local employers, like Sensata Technologies and Tharpe Robbins, are doing the same.

Sensata has even set up an interdisciplinary task force to monitor the company's response to the H1N1 threat and make recommendations to counter any large outbreak, spokeswoman Linda Megathlin said.

But corporate and public health authorities are also battling another potential enemy.

Americans, who work longer hours and take fewer vacations than their European counterparts have been known to shrug off colds and other minor ailments that might prevent others from going to work.

Not this time, corporate leaders say.

"Under normal circumstances, you might think of Americans toughing it out," said Joe Metzger, senior vice president for communications at Smith and Nephew, a medical device firm in Mansfield. "What we're communicating is that if you feel sick, you need to give yourself a break and your co-workers a break and stay home. We think there's a high awareness of that."

In an attempt to keep the H1N1 virus away, or at least limit its spread, Smith and Nephew has stepped up its germicidal cleaning regimen, giving special treatment to objects like handrails, door handles and countertops that are touched often by human hands.

Smith and Nephew is also consulting with other companies about best practices in H1N1 prevention.

Some companies are also making contingency plans for alternate suppliers if regular vendors are unable to deliver components because of worker shortages due to illness.

Covidien, the Mansfield-based health care products firm, is also communicating with workers via e-mail and poster campaigns at all of its offices and manufacturing plants about the need to guard against passing on the virus, spokeswoman Lisa Clemence said.

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