We are in the midst a global epidemic that annually causes three to five million cases of very severe illness and about 200,000 to 500,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 5-20% of the entire U.S. population contracts the disease annually. It’s been going on for as long as we can remember, and in 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide.
This epidemic is none other than influenza, aka “the flu”.
Every year from late fall to early spring, the influenza virus causes illness and potentially major disruption to our everyday life. The flu is not a cold or gastroenteritis (“stomach flu”). Influenza is serious business. The CDC estimates in the United States, between 12,000 and 56,000 deaths are attributed annually to the flu, with up to 35 million cases of the infection in total.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that can infect the nose, throat, and occasionally the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and can result in death, even among previously healthy individuals with no underlying health conditions. According to the CDC, symptoms of the flu can vary from person to person, but typically occur suddenly and consist of:
- Fever or a feeling of chills/feverish (important to note, not everyone will have a fever)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Vomiting and diarrhea, although this is typically more common in young children
In the fight against flu, and other infectious diseases, it’s important to understand how transmission occurs. Within the workplace, the primary routes of infectious diseases are contact (direct and indirect), droplet, and airborne. Direct contact involves direct skin-to-skin contact, whereas indirect transmission occurs when infectious agents are transferred via physical contact with contaminated items and surfaces. Droplet transmission involves infectious agents that are released when a person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and come into direct contact with the mucosal surfaces (eyes, nose, or mouth) of another susceptible individual. Most experts believe the flu is transmitted by droplet form. Finally, airborne transmission occurs when very small particles or droplet nuclei that contain the infectious agents are inhaled.
So how can businesses best protect their workers from flu and other infectious agents, and from infecting others? The most important tool in the fight against influenza is proper vaccination. For the 2015-2016 influenza season, the CDC estimated that influenza vaccination prevented approximately 5.1 million illnesses, 2.5 million medical visits, 71,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths. It is no failsafe—there are many strains of flu vaccine and not all are covered by a single vaccination—but it is an important step for reducing risk and increasing herd immunity.
One of the most pivotal processes to prevent illness in the workplace is to maintain proper infection and control practices. Every workplace should uphold the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) general duty clause and “provide all workers a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to their employees.” Businesses should make sure employees know:
- Proper hand hygiene – handwashing with soap and water and the use of alcohol-based sanitizers
- Proper respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette – cover mouth/nose when coughing or sneezing and use and dispose of tissues
- Wearing of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when needed – examples of PPE include gloves, gowns, face masks, respirators, goggles, and face shields
In addition to these steps, businesses need to reinforce the importance of staying home when workers are sick to further prevent spreading the infection. Companies that don’t offer paid time off for illness should consider it when aiming to keep workers safe and healthy on the job. Helping workers understand there won’t be punishment for taking a sick day is vital in the fight against infectious diseases. When workers come to work sick, factors such as close quarters, insufficient engineering controls, poor personal hygiene habits, and lack of management oversight can all lead to the spread of further infections. Companies have the ability to protect their employees through education, allowance for sick days, and vaccination programs. Helping employees prevent the spread of illness with vaccines or incentive programs can have a long-term reward for your organization.
Finally, workplaces need to be prepared. The best way to prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace and healthcare settings is by maintaining awareness among the entire worker population. It could mean the difference between one person getting sick and having an infectious disease affect a large population. To better be prepared for a potential infectious disease outbreak, businesses should:
- Begin planning now
- Be vigilant
- Be proactive
It’s essential for businesses to understand what needs to be done before, during, and after an outbreak occurs to minimize the further spread of the disease. With an effective infection control plan in place, including steps such as fundamental principles, education and training, surveillance, standard precautions and elements from OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen Standard, businesses can be assured that their employees are better guarded and they have greatly reduced the possibility of further infections.