Ohio is currently in the height of flu season. Influenza is highly contagious and spreads by droplets in the air when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or even talk. When these droplets touch the mouths or noses or are breathed in by others who are nearby, they can catch the flu.
Sometimes the virus is spread when it is left on objects like pens, electronic devices, door knobs, light switches and other surfaces that an ill person has touched. When a healthy person touches that object and then touches their own nose or mouth, they can catch the flu.
The flu is likely to be spread where people get together in groups and are close to one another. A prime place for this to occur is in the workplace. Adding to the ease of spread is the fact that a person is contagious with the disease as much as 24 hours before even showing any symptoms. A bad flu season can impact businesses in several ways.
• Increased absenteeism among employees
• Fewer customers
• Delay or interruption in the normal supply chain
There are many things that businesses can do to reduce the spread of flu in the workplace:
1. Encourage sick employees to stay home for at least 24 hours after they are free of a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. Flu symptoms include chills and cough or sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, tiredness, and even diarrhea, or vomiting.
2. Sick employees at work should be sent home. Employees who appear to have flu symptoms at work should be promptly separated from other workers and sent home.
3. Encourage your employees to wash their hands often. Instruct employees to wash their hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner, especially after coughing or sneezing and before eating.
4. Encourage your employees to cover their coughs and sneezes. Remind employees the importance of covering coughs and sneezes with their inside elbow and provide tissues and no-touch trash cans.
5. Encourage your employees not to touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
The average person touches their face over 2,000 times a day. Since the flu virus is spread by hand contact with mucous membranes like the eyes, nose and mouth, avoiding this behavior reduces your chance of getting the flu.
6. Clean surfaces and items that people frequently touch. Flu virus can live on hard surfaces up to seven hours. Frequently clean commonly used surfaces at work that are repeatedly touched. These include table and desk tops, door knobs, light switches, copier and fax buttons, computer mouse and keyboard, microwave buttons and door handle, refrigerator and cabinet door handles, TV or projector remote controls and buttons, telephone receiver and buttons, sign-in pens, pencils, and clipboards.
7. Encourage employees to get vaccinated. Encourage employees to get vaccinated, especially those at higher risk of having complication from the flu. Even now it is not too late to get a flu shot.
8. Educate employees who are at higher risk for complications. Groups at higher risk for complications from the flu are pregnant women and people with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma. If they become sick, they should check with their healthcare provider as soon as possible. It is important for these employees to get a flu shot. If they do get the flu, early treatment with antiviral medicine is important because it can prevent complications, hospitalization and even death.
9. Prepare for an increase in employee absences from their own illness and their family members’ illness. Plan ways for essential business functions to continue during times of high absenteeism. Consider cross-training staff to perform essential functions so that business operations can continue.
10. Advise employees before traveling on business to take certain precautions. Instruct workers to check for flu symptoms before traveling, to notify their supervisor, and stay home if they are sick. Tell employees who are traveling how to seek healthcare if they become sick and need care at their destination. If employees become sick during travel, they should stay in their hotel room unless they are seeking medical care.
11. Prepare for the possibility of school dismissals or temporary closure of childcare programs. Allow workers to stay home to take care of their children if schools are dismissed or childcare programs are closed. Encourage your employees with children to plan for childcare alternatives ahead of time, if possible.
If a flu outbreak becomes severe, consider taking the following additional actions:
1. Consider screening employees at work. At the beginning of the workday or each shift, ask all employees if they have any flu symptoms. Those reporting symptoms should be asked to go home.
2. Consider alternative work environments for employees at higher risk for complications of flu. When possible, change work duties, work location, or work schedules for employees who are at higher risk for flu complications to reduce the number of exposures to people that may have the flu. If this cannot be done, consider allowing these employees to work from home if possible or stay home.
3. Reduce close contact between workers. Avoid crowded conditions; cancel large face-to-face business meetings; space workers farther apart; cancel non-essential travel; promote telecommuting (working from home); and use staggered shifts so there are fewer workers in the workplace at the same time.
4. Advise employees about possible disruptions and special considerations while traveling overseas. During a widespread flu outbreak, travel restrictions may be enacted by some countries. This may limit the ability of employees to return home if they become sick while traveling. Plan ahead to limit non-essential travel and create contingency plans for employees who travel internationally.
5. Be flexible. Employers should be aware that the severity of the flu status in the community could change rapidly. This could change the recommendations to communities by public health officials. It is important for business planners to identify credible, timely and accurate sources of information to know the latest recommendations so that they can quickly implement new prevention and control measures for their workplace.
For further information visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/flu/business/index.htm for business planning tools or contact the Madison County/London City Health District at 740-852-3065 to schedule a flu shot.
Pat Lentz is the director of emergency preparedness at the Madison County-London City Health District and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740-852-3065, ext. 1525.