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Being prepared key to flu season

lu preparedness. Put that at the top of a company's staff meeting agenda and watch the eyes glaze over.

It's not sexy, but having a sensible plan in place to deal with increased numbers of absences due to illness may be the difference between businesses that continue to function and those that are crippled if the flu strikes large numbers this fall and winter.

State officials on Wednesday emphasized preparedness among citizens, not panic, for the expected outbreak of H1N1 flu, commonly called swine flu. It's impossible to predict what will happen, but that unpredictability is exactly the reason that people, schools and businesses have to be prepared.

Long a Petri dish for every possible illness, schools have, of course, taken the warnings to heart. Dispensers of hand sanitizer and instructions for students and staff to take other steps -- cover your cough, wash your hands, stay home when sick -- will be the main line of defense.

The question we have is how many other workplaces will be prepared.

Those businesses that have crisis plans in place already -- for a natural disaster or power outage, for example -- probably are farther along than others.

"Essential business functions" is the term that is used in Centers for Disease Control recommendations -- identifying what those functions are and what level of absenteeism threatens those functions.

For example, if your business manager is ill, are there other workers in the business office who can handle the day-to-day affairs? What if everyone in bookkeeping is ill? Are there workers in another department -- among the sales staff, perhaps -- who are currently cross-trained in bookkeeping functions who could step in and at least keep the doors open?

Can any of the functions be done remotely, perhaps via an Internet connection? If the business manager is well but has to care for a sick child at home, can he or she perform the essential tasks online to keep the business operating?

Those kinds of questions have to be asked in every department or division.

What if outside vendors can no longer provide the supplies or services upon which your business relies?

There are innumerable questions and scenarios like that, some unique to a particular business.

For a business that has never been through this exercise, it is a daunting task. It requires resources -- certainly people's time -- and that is perhaps a tough argument to make to bosses trying to carefully manage budgets in this soft economy. The natural question may be whether the investment is warranted when no one can predict if widespread sickness will occur.

We certainly would not presume to advise a business in how to create a preparedness plan. The Web site of the Centers for Disease Control has loads of information on this point and would be one resource. But it seems sensible to us that each business should try to create a crisis plan -- its usefulness will extend beyond pandemic flu.