Controlling the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace

Infectious disease risks often pose a serious problem in the workplace. From the seasonal flu to respiratory diseases, a plethora of infectious diseases is responsible for worker illnesses, and in worse-case scenarios, death.

What happens when half of a workforce is exposed to an illness and has to take time off due to possible contagion or sickness? In a matter of hours, a sick individual can pass an illness to hundreds, even thousands, of people.

The world is getting smaller. People are traveling more to regions where disease and illness abounds. At home, people go to work not realizing they are contagious, or they may feel sick and go to work anyway. Regrettably, one of the main reasons infectious diseases spread so quickly in the workplace is because some employees don’t believe they’re going to spread germs; instead they just seem to be thinking about all the work they have to do.

A scenario with tuberculosis (TB) illustrates how easy it is for diseases to travel. While traveling for work, an employee begins to feel sick and develops chest pain and a bad cough. Over the next few days, he boards a plane for home still feeling sick and coughing regularly. Upon returning home, the employee goes to work and continues life as usual until he begins coughing blood and decides to go to the doctor, only to find out he has TB. Think about the implications of this scenario. Everyone who has come into contact with this individual is at risk for contracting the disease.

How can we protect our employees from serious infectious diseases? First, we need to understand how infectious diseases are transmitted. The primary routes of transmission are contact (direct and indirect), droplet, and airborne. Direct contact involves the infectious agent being transmitted through physical contact (skin-to-skin). Indirect contact occurs when the infectious agent is transferred to some type of object or surface (countertops, door knobs). An example of a direct-contact agent is Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Droplets occur when the infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and droplets come into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth of a susceptible individual. The influenza virus is transmitted this way.

Finally, airborne transmission occurs when infectious agents can remain suspended in air for extended periods of time. The airborne agent may be inhaled by a susceptible person and enter the respiratory tract, where it creates the potential for infection. Airborne transmission only occurs when the infectious agent is capable of surviving and retaining its infectious state for an extended period of time. An example of an airborne agent is Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis (TB), and the rubella virus, which causes measles.

When a worker succumbs to a serious viral illness or disease, what can we do to prevent further spread?

It’s important to follow best practices and take proper preventive measures. Infectious disease experts say it’s highly advisable to obtain recommended vaccinations and immunizations to help prevent illness and the spread of disease. Other important steps to remember in reducing the spread of infectious agents:

  • Practice proper hand hygiene – wash hands thoroughly to prevent the spread of infection
  • Stay home when you are ill – don’t put others at risk of exposure
  • Travel wisely – don’t travel on public transportation, by rail or air when you’re ill. Many people confined in a small area for infectious agents
  • Don’t share items – passing around items that have been touched by an infected person can transfer the illness
  • Practice respiratory hygiene
  • Adhere to proper infection/exposure control precautions

UL’s Occupational Health Manager (OHM) gives employee health professionals the capacity to quickly act on health and safety matters. By using the OHM Mobile Vaccine App, employee health professionals can manage large-scale vaccination campaigns with ease.