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Cold & Flu Season with a Twist: Is Your Workplace Ready for the Swine Flu?

by The Human Equation, Inc. on 9/16/2009
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As summer turns into fall, the normal din of the workplace will slowly but surely be supplemented with coughs, sniffles, and sneezes. Those workers who are not calling in sick will be busy wiping their noses and stifling their coughs. Though employers have nimbly handled cold and flu seasons of years past, the 2009 version holds the promise of something much different, and possibly much worse, courtesy of the H1N1 influenza virus—a.k.a., the swine flu.

According to the World Health Organization, the swine flu has entered the pandemic phase. A pandemic, or global disease outbreak, typically involves the emergence of a new virus for which there is little or no immunity in the human population, which is capable of causing serious illness, and which spreads easily from person to person on a global scale. Since the swine flu satisfies these criteria, it must be considered a threat capable of causing significant disruption and harm.

Given the potential consequences of a swine flu outbreak, the need to protect one’s home and family is obvious. However, what should not be overlooked is preparation and protection in the workplace, since the amount of time spent in the workplace often exceeds the amount of time spent elsewhere. Thus, in the event of a swine flu outbreak, employers will play a key role in protecting their employees’ health and safety, as well as limiting the impact on the business itself. Accordingly, employers must have a contingency plan in place for dealing with a swine flue outbreak.

The measures that must be taken to protect the workplace and the workforce must be consistent with the risk of occupational exposure in a particular work environment. The level of risk depends, in part, on whether jobs require close proximity to potentially infected people, or whether they are required to have either repeated or extended contact with known or suspected sources of the swine flu. The significance of proximity to infected people stems from the manner in which the flu virus spreads among people.

Influenza is thought to be primarily spread through large droplets that directly contact the nose, mouth, or eyes. These droplets are produced when infected people cough, sneeze, or talk, thereby sending relatively large infectious droplets and very small sprays into the nearby air. To a lesser degree, human influenza is spread by touching objects contaminated with the virus and then transferring the infected material from the hands to the nose, mouth, or eyes.

Relying on the manner in which the flu virus may be transmitted from person to person, the Occupational Safety& Health Administration (OSHA) classified the risk of occupational exposure in the following manner:

  • Very High Exposure Risk occupations are those with high potential exposure to high concentrations of known or suspected sources of pandemic influenza during specific medical or laboratory procedures. Health care and medical laboratory personnel performing procedures on infected individuals or handling infected specimens typically fall into this category.
  • High Exposure Risk occupations are those with high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources of pandemic influenza. Health care professionals and medical transport personnel required to remain in close proximity with infected individuals typically fall into this category.
  • Medium Exposure Risk occupations include jobs that require frequent, close contact (within 6 feet) to other people such as coworkers and the general public. Teachers and those working in high-density work environments typically fall into this category.
  • Low Exposure Risk occupations are those that do not require contact with people known to be infected nor require close contact with the public, such as typical office employees.

Determining the level of risk exposure should be the first step to devising a plan for the prevention of spreading the swine flu virus in the workplace. For example, those working in a very high risk exposure occupation may consider requiring the use of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, respirators, or facemasks. Employers operating a workplace with a low exposure risk would likely implement a more subtle approach to preventing the spread of swine flu in the workplace.

However, regardless of the level of exposure risk, there are steps every employer should take to reduce the risk of spreading the swine flu in the workplace. These steps include:

  • Avoiding crowded settings, such as meetings, as much as possible. This can be accomplished by keeping necessary meetings as short as possible, and by using teleconferences, virtual meetings, etc. in lieu of physical meetings.
  • Encouraging sick employees to stay at home by letting them know that they will not suffer any adverse consequences by missing work due to illness.
  • Encouraging employees to wash their hands frequently with soap and water or with a hand sanitizer. Employers should consider providing adequate cleaning materials to their workforce.
  • Encouraging employees to avoid touching their noses, eyes, and mouths.
  • Encouraging employees to cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue and disposing of tissues in no-touch trash receptacles. Employees should wash their hands immediately after coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose.
  • Encouraging employees to avoid close contact (within 6 feet) with coworkers and customers and to avoid shaking hands.
  • Keeping frequently touched common surfaces, such as telephones, computer equipment, and door handles, clean.
  • Encouraging employees from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or equipment.
  • Limiting unnecessary visitors in the workplace.

Implementing these preventative steps can go a long way towards reducing the likelihood of an outbreak in the workplace. Additionally, employers should engage their state and local health departments to stay current on any new developments involving the swine flu. Since constant change is characteristic of a pandemic, employers must ensure they are operating with the most current information.

As with any other threat to the workplace and the workforce, such as a natural disaster, the only way to successfully mitigate the damage is to plan ahead. Without exception, employers should anticipate the possibility of a swine flu outbreak affecting their workforce, and should have a contingency plan in effect to handle the event, because any business operation that fails to plan ahead may find the 2009 version of the cold and flu season to be its last.

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Categories: 2009, Safety

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