Anthrax or flu: Against which should you protect?

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Anthrax or flu: Against which should you protect?

We recently spoke to someone whose company had rebuilt its mailroom and put in procedures and equipment to detect bombs and reduce the risk of anthrax being spread. This was interesting, particularly when coupled with the fact that they had cut out free flu shots for employees.

There is certainly no doubt that the handful of anthrax deaths we saw in the last quarter of 2001 was disturbing. On the other hand, every year in the US something on the order of 20,000 people die from the flu. We aren’t statisticians, but it seems to us that the risk of dying from the flu is, in a normal year, about 20,000 times greater than that of dying from anthrax.

This brings us back to the basics: When planning we need to look at the likelihood of an event taking place, the impact of its taking place, the cost of preventing it from taking place, and its cost if it took place.

• There are events that are common (like people taking home pencils and pens) which aren’t worth preventing.

• There are events that are common and can be easily prevented (like giving flu shots to employees and their families).

• There are events that are infrequent, but still happen with some regularity and could be catastrophic (like flood, or fire, or hurricane, or tornado, or earthquake) for which there should be emergency plans in place.

• There are events that could have some bad impact, but are unlikely and impossible to prevent (like bombs or anthrax) for which there should be a protocol and whatever preventative measures are appropriate and cost effective. In the case of bombs, for example, training the mailroom staff to recognize suspicious packages is probably not much less effective than putting in fifty million dollars of bomb detecting equipment, which would likely have about an 85% success rate.

• There are events that could be catastrophic and are preventable, which should be identified and controlled.

It might seem sensible to spend virtually any amount of money to save lives. In truth, however, people tend to balance cost and inconvenience against risk, which is easily demonstrated by the fact that people still choose to live in hurricane areas, tornado areas, in flood areas, and on top of fault lines.

They also smoke, drink and drive, drive small cars, drive cars without wearing seatbelts, take drugs, and practice unsafe sex.

In some cases money is spent for reasons other than those stated. As an example, we are spending billions of dollars at airports, but those measures are designed primarily to increase the comfort level of travelers, rather than their safety. Since the inconvenience has converted many flyers to drivers, and the driving will produce an increase in travel deaths, this can’t be taken as a commitment to the sanctity of life. The truth is that there is no such thing as perfect safety, and much social policy shifts deaths, but does not lower overall death rates.

Since most companies do not have the resources of the federal government, and cannot afford to retain, merely for the sake of PR, programs that don’t work, it is important to have an independent audit of your risks and levels of preparedness. With this in hand, you can make sensible decisions about where you face both risk and liability, and use your scarce dollars to maximum effect: Remember, the goal is to increase productivity and profit, rather than merely make a statement. In the example that began this article, trading ineffective protection against bombs or anthrax for having employees take sick days because they have the flu, or, worse, spread the flu through the office because they do not wish to take sick days, is not a wise or prudent investment.

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