A nationwide flu outbreak is showing no signs of easing up and may continue for many more weeks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control said so far more than 17,100 people have been hospitalized with influenza since the flu season began in October. The main culprit for this harsh flu season is the predominant strain, H3N2. Seasons where H3N2 dominates typically result in the most complications, especially for the very young, the elderly and people with certain chronic health conditions.
Workplaces offer many opportunities for people to interact. More interaction between people in close contact increases the risk for respiratory illnesses like the flu to spread. According to the CDC, flu viruses can spread to people from up to six feet away through droplets made by sneezing, coughing or talking. Even before showing symptoms, an infected employee who sneezes during a meeting or coughs at someone’s desk without covering his or her mouth can expose others to the flu.
Here are important steps from the CDC that employers can take to prevent the spread of this year’s outbreak:
Communicate with employees about flu prevention through emails, websites, posters and announcements.
- Use staff training, routine workplace communications, and email announcements to encourage healthy workplace policies and behaviors.
- Encourage managers and employees to get a flu vaccination as soon as possible. It’s not too late since there are still weeks of flu activity to come.
- Consider offering flexible leave and telework policies to make it easier for your staff to stay home when they are sick or caring for a sick family member. Managers should promote sick leave policies that encourage sick employees to stay home.
Maintain a clean environment, and provide employees with supplies that prevent the spread of flu.
- Be sure frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as telephones, keyboards, doorknobs and water fountains and microwave handles are cleaned often.
- Provide supplies that promote healthy hygiene, including tissues, soap, and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. You can also provide a bleach-and-water solution or a disinfectant with a label that says “EPA approved” for killing bacteria and viruses.
Educate employees on the following healthy behaviors and when to stay home:
Wash hands often with soap and warm water. Rub them together for at least 20 seconds and be sure to dry them thoroughly. If there is no soap and water available, use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gels and also let it dry completely. Washing hands at specific times reduces cold and flu transmission, for example:
- After coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose;
- Before touching your face;
- After touching contaminated objects such as tissues;
- After cleaning surfaces which may be contaminated;
- After shaking hands with someone known or suspected to be infected;
- Before eating.
Practice good cough and sneeze etiquette – covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing reduces the likelihood of cold and flu viruses becoming airborne and/or contaminating surfaces and other objects in the work environment. However, when hands are used to cover the mouth, they become contaminated. Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze and encourage workmates to do the same. The tissue should be disposed of and hands washed immediately afterwards. If no tissue is available, cough into the sleeve at the inner elbow. Make sure you have a bin for tissue disposal.
Cold and flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces for up to eight hours and on a person’s hands for approximately five minutes after they touch a contaminated surface. From there they can cause infection if the person touches their mouth or eyes. Reduce your risk of infection by avoiding touching your face, or washing your hands before you do so.
Employees should stay home if they have any of these symptoms:
- Extreme tiredness
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle aches
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- Nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs): At work