Workplace Solutions Occupational illnesses Workplace exposures

Preventing the spread of sickness

We all work in a close work environment. When one person becomes ill, we all seem to get sick. Are there any safeguards we can put in place to minimize the spread of viruses and infections among co-workers?

Responding is Deborah Talbot, RN, COHN-S/CM, president, AllOne Health, Woburn, MA.

As we enter flu season, it is critical for employees to consider prevention and risk control procedures to limit the impact of communicable illnesses in the workplace. Given the number of serious communicable illnesses that have arisen in the past few years (SARS, avian flu, swine flu and Ebola), it is helpful for companies to establish protocols to respond to the potential impact of an outbreak on their business if they have not already done so.

A comprehensive plan will delineate responsibilities, absence policies, reporting and return-to-work procedures. It may even include business continuity preparations in the event of a widespread impact. Short of a communicable illness plan, there are many simple strategies that an employer can implement to help combat the impact of absenteeism and presenteeism due to illness.

First and foremost is education. Most communicable illnesses are transmitted when an individual touches a contaminated surface and then touches their face (nose, eyes or mouth). This is true of respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses, as well as the more serious illnesses that dominate the media. While many infectious agents survive less than 24 hours on surfaces, some can live for weeks. They generally survive better on hard surfaces (like desktops) than on soft surfaces (like fabric).

Frequent handwashing is the first line of defense. Many individuals rinse their hands and do not realize that rubbing their hands with soap under running water for 20 seconds is the type of handwashing that reduces germs. (Singing “Happy Birthday” twice takes about 20 seconds and is a good way for people to remember how long to wash.) If the faucet is manual, avoid touching the handles after washing your hands. Use a paper towel to shut off the faucet and then open the restroom door. If the paper towel dispenser is operated by a hand pump, use your forearm or closed fist.

Alcohol sanitizers can be placed strategically throughout the work facility. Individuals who interact with the public should have sanitizers readily available. Sanitizers must contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective. Although they do not kill all types of bacteria or viruses, they can be very useful when hand washing is impractical or unavailable.

Individuals should be taught to cough or sneeze into the crook of their elbow – not their hands. If people feel ill they should not shake someone’s hand, use someone else’s phone or computer, or share food. Used tissues belong in the trash, not on a desktop.

Make it a policy that someone who has even mild symptoms should distance themselves from the main group when in a meeting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a minimum distance of 6 feet.

A corporate cleaning policy that includes wiping down desktops, phones, keyboards and doorknobs daily with sanitizing wipes is another valuable practice. Wipe the conference table and audio/visual remote between meetings. All of this can be communicated in fact sheets, posters or even a slide deck that individuals must review.

Making these practices routine will encourage compliance from reluctant employees. If there is concern over widespread outbreaks, it comes back to a more comprehensive communicable illness policy, but these simple commonsense steps should be effective at minimizing the spread of most common workplace illnesses.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.