Preventing Workplace Flu Outbreaks
Jan 15, 2018 03:59PM ● Published by Dia
Flu outbreaks are miserable for everyone involved. The infected person has to deal with a week or more of discomfort, their family members and coworkers have to pick up the slack during the sufferer’s convalescence and everyone in the vicinity lives in fear of becoming the next victim.
At this time of year, the flu virus is an ever-present threat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 9.2 and 35.6 million people in the U.S. get the flu every year. That’s approximately 2.8 to 11 percent of the nation’s population. Hospitalizations range between 140,000 and 710,000 annually. Deaths attributed to influenza range between 12,000 and 56,000 a year in the U.S.
During the average flu season, the majority of healthy adults are able to fight off the flu with the help of an antiviral drug prescribed by their physician without needing to be admitted to a hospital. Most fatal cases occur in the elderly or very young children.
Even if the flu isn’t a life or death risk for the average worker or employer, it can still be hugely disruptive to businesses, especially small ones. If employees work in close proximity, the flu can be highly contagious, but there are precautions employees and businesses can take to minimize their risk.
During the 2016 – 2017 flu season, approximately 59 percent of children and 43.3 percent of adults received a flu vaccine. In the 18- to 64-year-old range most employees fall into, only about 37.5 percent of people were vaccinated.
When nearly two out of three workers are at risk of contracting the flu every season, employers have an understandable reason to be concerned. Knowing that a significant percentage of employees won’t get a flu shot of their own volition has prompted some savvy businesses to begin providing flu vaccines to employees. There are several services that enable employers to set up an onsite vaccination clinic so workers don’t need to sacrifice their off time to wait in line somewhere to get a flu shot.
Implementing an onsite vaccination clinic is a great way to get a much higher vaccination coverage rate for your office. Many insurance plans also cover flu vaccinations free of charge. Check with your insurance provider to see if your plan includes free preventative treatments such as influenza shots.
People with the flu can begin spreading it to others approximately 24 hours before symptoms even manifest. Although most people try to avoid the faux pas of sneezing or coughing near someone without covering their mouth, they generally aren’t worried about speaking in close proximity to a person when they’re feeling fine.
The flu is often spread when it’s airborne after someone coughs or sneezes, but it can also spread from commonly touched items in the office as well. Door handles, counters, buttons on microwaves and water machines can potentially be covered in the cold or flu virus. The influenza virus can survive on those nonporous hard surfaces for up to 24 hours. The virus can also survive in the air in droplet form for several hours, especially in low temperatures. On tissues that number drops to about 15 minutes, and skin, such as the hands, to an estimated five minutes. There are still plenty of opportunities for someone to touch one of those surfaces then touch around their mouth or nose within 5 minutes after contact.
The best thing workplaces can do to minimize this risk is to frequently disinfect common surfaces and encourage regular hand washing with soap and water or disinfectant hand sanitizers.
Businesses with the ability to do so may want to consider allowing employees to work remotely during a particularly virulent office flu outbreak. Avoiding close interaction with people infected with influenza is one of the best ways to prevent contracting the virus. In our workaholic society, you can’t always rely on people who are sick to stay home where they belong. There will always be employees who come in for work even though they know they’re sick, and in some cases before they begin showing symptoms but after they are contagious.
Strictly enforcing a policy requiring workers who exhibit flu and cold symptoms to at the very least work from home may be another effective way for workplaces to minimize the spread of the flu through the office.
Businesses that require frequent travel may need to adjust their operations slightly during flu season. It’s good for employers and the general public as a whole if people who display flu or cold symptoms avoid air travel. Airplanes are ideal breeding grounds for flu and cold viruses with so many people trapped in close proximity breathing the same air for a long period of time. Plus, no one enjoys traveling when they’re sick, and job performance will likely suffer as a result.
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