Workplace Safety and the Flu – How To Protect Workers
It’s THAT time of year again! No, not just family dinners, seasonal decorations and gifts. It’s flu season! The time of year when people head indoors and share germs and end up feeling miserable. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say there are many influenza viruses that constantly change. Fortunately, some basic precautions can help protect workers from seasonal flu and stop its spread in the workplace.
Seasonal flu contributes to some 17 million lost workdays and 200,000 hospitalizations every season. Each year, some 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu, and in recent years, flu activity has remained elevated for 21 weeks! Employers can play an important role in preventing flu, helping protect employee health and reducing losses in productivity and revenue.
Here’s important information from OSHA and the CDC on how to protect workers from seasonal flu when their jobs involve contact with coworkers and the general public. This information provides a baseline for infection control during a seasonal flu outbreak, but it may not be enough to protect workers during a pandemic.(There are different specific recommendations for Healthcare workers.) The CDC urges all businesses to help keep employees healthy during flu season. ComplianceSigns provides flu vaccinations for our employees, and we encourage you to do the same.
Basic Flu Precautions for Most Workplaces
Encourage Workers to Get Vaccinated for the Flu
Encourage workers to get the seasonal flu vaccine when it is available. Consider hosting a flu vaccination clinic in your workplace. Vaccination is the most effective means of preventing flu and protecting workers from seasonal flu. Vaccines take time to become effective, so early vaccination is important. Don’t wait until people are sick to hold a vaccination clinic.
Encourage Sick Workers to Stay Home
Encourage sick workers to stay home. The CDC recommends that workers who have a fever and respiratory symptoms stay at home until 24 hours after their fever ends (100 F or lower), without the use of medication. Not everyone who has the flu will have a fever. Other symptoms could include a runny nose, body aches, headache, tiredness, diarrhea, or vomiting.
Develop flexible leave policies that encourage workers to stay home, without penalty, if they are sick. Discuss other human resource policies with staff, including administrative leave transfer between employees, pay policy for sick leave, childcare options, and what to do when ill during travel.
Develop a Policy for Workers and Clients Who Become Ill in the Workplace
Develop a policy on how to deal with workers and clients who may be ill with the flu and communicate it to your workers. Determine who will be responsible for assisting ill individuals in the workplace and make sure that at least one person can serve as the “go to” person if someone becomes sick in the workplace. Consider how to separate ill workers from others, or give them a surgical mask to wear until they can go home.
Promote Hand Hygiene and Cough Etiquette
Post handwashing signs that tell workers, visitors, and clients the steps for proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette. Handwashing is the easiest and most effective defense against illness, and a 2017 found 44% of men said they were more likely to wash their hands after seeing a sign that requires employees to wash before returning to work. Workers, visitors, and clients should have easy access to supplies such as:
- “No touch” wastebaskets for used tissues;
- Soap and water;
- Alcohol-based hand rubs;
- Disposable towels;
- Cleaning and sanitation materials.
Keep the Workplace Clean
Frequently clean all commonly touched work surfaces, work areas, and equipment (e.g., telephones, doorknobs, lunch areas, countertops, copiers, etc.). Use your standard cleaning agents and follow the label directions. No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended by CDC. Provide disinfectants and disposable towels for workers to use to clean their work spaces and surfaces and to keep work areas clean.
Educate Workers About the Flu
Train employees about how flu can be transmitted in the workplace and what precautions they can use to protect themselves from seasonal flu. Provide information about the following:
- Signs, symptoms, and complications of the flu
- Policies and procedures for reporting flu symptoms, using sick leave, and returning to work
- Any required work practices
The CDC has identified groups that have a higher risk for complications from seasonal flu (e.g., elderly, pregnant women, small children, persons with asthma, etc.). Inform workers that some people are at higher risk of complications from flu and suggest that they talk to their doctor about their own risk and what to do if they become ill.
Address Business Travel and Flu Sickness While Traveling
Reconsider business travel to areas with high illness rates. The CDC recommends the following measures for workers who becomes ill while on travel:
- Advise workers who become ill while traveling or on temporary assignment to notify their supervisors.
- Workers who become ill while traveling and are at increased risk of flu complications and others concerned about their illness should promptly call a healthcare provider.
- Advise workers to check themselves for fever and any other signs of flu-like illness before starting travel and to notify their supervisors and stay home if they feel ill.
Following these precautions can help protect your workers – and your business – from seasonal flu regardless of flu level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares updated guidance annually for protecting individuals from seasonal flu. Each year the vaccine is revised to protect against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common in the current season.
Pandemic flu remains a concern for employers and workers. A pandemic can occur at any time and can be mild, moderate, or severe. Although the pandemic H1N1 flu in 2009 was considered by CDC to be mild, it created significant challenges for employers and workers and showed that many workplaces were not prepared.