Experts Urge Employers to Take Steps to Prepare for Potential Flu Pandemic
With the recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus, experts are urging employers in the United States to prepare for the potential health, social and economic impact of a flu pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization, several hundred cases of the flu -- originally referred to as the "swine flu" -- have been confirmed. Although it is believed to have started in Mexico, the virus has spread to the United States, Europe, Canada and other nations. The H1N1 strain is made up of four different flu viruses, including the North American Mexican influenza, North American avian influenza, human influenza, and swine influenza virus typically found in Asia and Europe.
"Planning for pandemic influenza is critical, and the business community must not delay in considering the impact of a pandemic and to adjust their company's employee health and safety plans accordingly," said Lindsey Booher, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. "Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their employees, and by following guidelines based on traditional infection control and industrial hygiene practices, employers can play a key role in protecting their employees from influenza and other communicable illnesses."
Focus on four areas. The AIHA has developed the following guidelines to help identify risk levels in workplace settings and appropriate measures that include good hygiene, cough etiquette, social distancing, and staying home when ill. When developing a pandemic plan for your workplace, the association recommended addressing these four issues:
Workplace access and security.
In the case of a pandemic threat, employers should:
- Restrict and monitor workplace access.
- Establish criteria for refusal of access to unfit workers and criteria for return to work.
- Implement telework capabilities where feasible.
- Develop infrastructure to manage meetings by conference call or videoconferencing. When meetings are necessary, employees should keep a separation of at least 6 feet from colleagues. In addition, ensure there is adequate ventilation.
- Encourage job rotation or staggered shifts to reduce workplace capacity as well as employee exposure risks related to traveling on public transit during peak times.
- Segregate/isolate critical work clusters.
- Reduce or eliminate work in low-ventilated areas.
- Minimize the use of shared facilities for eating and smoking by staggering meals and breaks or designating multiple sites.
- Reduce or eliminate work travel to high-risk regions and encourage workers who are traveling to stay away in the event of a local outbreak.
- Initiate a "snow day" practice or "reverse quarantine" for nonessential workers.
Labor relations. With regard to labor relations, the AIHA recommended employers:
- Identify critical production needs and reduce nonessential production.
- Compile priority requirements for key workers with respect to personal protective equipment and training.
- Engage management and workers/union parties in discussions on safe work practices, grievance procedures, and contingencies available for workforce, supply chain, and production.
- Maintain effective communications between all workplace parties.
- Address dispute resolution regarding health and safety/safe work issues.
- Identify and mitigate unique exposure risks posed by multiple jobs and shifts by part-time or occasional workers.
Communications. It is important to create avenues that allow employees to keep in touch during a pandemic. The association recommended businesses:
- Establish a call-in hotline.
- Create an up-to-the-minute Web splash page on your company's home Internet site.
Germ control. To control the spread of disease during a pandemic, the AIHA recommended employers:
- Develop a sick leave policy that does not penalize sick employees and encourages them to stay home. Recognize that employees with ill family members may need to stay home to care for them.
- Provide resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. Provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and disposable towels to clean work surfaces.
- Encourage employees to cover their nose and mouth when they cough and sneeze.
- Provide employees with up-to-date education and training on flu risk factors, protective behaviors, and instruction on proper behaviors ? proper cough etiquette and care of personal protective equipment.
- Discourage employees from using phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment that are not theirs.
- Remind workers to clean their hands often. Whenever possible, wash with soap and warm water, rub the hands vigorously together and scrub all surfaces for 15 to 20 seconds. When soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers, rubbing hands until dry.
May 18, 2009
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