The "flu" refers to illnesses caused by a number of different influenza viruses. It can cause a range of symptoms and effects, from mild to lethal. Most healthy people recover from the flu without problems, but certain people are at high risk for serious complications. In a typical year, approximately 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the seasonal flu and approximately 36,000 flu-related deaths are reported. This year, the H1N1 virus may cause a more dangerous flu season with more people getting sick, being hospitalized and dying than during a regular flu season.
Because of the global pandemic related to the spread of H1N1, we've been inundated with information from the media. We've been told to wash our hands, get a flu shot and stay home if you're sick. Despite all this attention, are you prepared if your workforce calls in sick? Do you have appropriate resources to answer your employee's questions? Businesses and employers, in general, play a key role in protecting employees' health and safety, as well as in limiting the negative impact of influenza outbreaks on the individual, the community, and the nation's economy. Regardless of the size or type of your business, planning now can put strategies into place that will help protect your business and your employees during this unpredictable influenza season.
All employers should consider and communicate their objectives, which may include one or more of the following: (a) reducing transmission among staff, (b) protecting people who are at increased risk of influenza related complications from getting infected with influenza, (c) maintaining business operations, and (d) minimizing adverse effects on other entities in their supply chains.
Keep sick workers home: One of the best ways to reduce the spread of influenza is to keep sick people away from well people. Regardless of the size of the business or the function or services that you provide, all employers should plan to allow and encourage sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs. Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are well aware of these policies. Do not require a doctor's note for workers who are ill with influenza-like illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as doctor's offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and may not be able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
Identify possible work-related exposure and health risks to your employees:
Flu viruses may be spread when a person touches a hard surface (such as a desk or doorknob) or an object (such as a keyboard or pen) where the virus has landed and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth. Provide resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene (tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants and disposable towels for workers to clean their work surfaces). Offer influenza education and training materials in an easy to understand format and in the appropriate language and literacy level for all employees. Develop procedures to minimize contacts between workers and between workers/customers.
Encourage employees to get vaccinated:
Vaccination is the best protection against contracting the flu. You need two vaccines to be fully protected this year and the CDC is encouraging people to get both as soon as possible: seasonal flu and H1N1 flu vaccine. Offer opportunities at your worksite for vaccination and consider granting employees time off from work to get vaccinated if not offered at the worksite. Review the health benefits you offer employees and work with insurers to explore if they can cover influenza immunization costs.
Prepare for increased numbers of employee absences: Elevated absentee rates can be due to sick workers, those who need to stay home and care for others, or from workers with conditions that make them at higher risk for complications from influenza and who may be worried about coming to work. Cross-train personnel to perform essential functions and explore whether you can establish flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts). Assess the reliance that others and the community have on your services or products. Be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations (e.g. identify alternative suppliers, prioritize customers, or temporarily suspend some of your operations if needed).
Stay informed and keep communication open: Choose someone to be responsible for flu issues at the workplace. They can contact the local health department for guidance; monitor the level and severity of flu illness in your community and sign up for updates from www.flu.nv.gov and www.cdc.gov/mobile/. In addition, there are many avenues for influenza information, but www.ImmunizeNevada.org is updated regularly and links to all Nevada resources.
By working together this flu season, we can protect our employees, families and customers through prevention and planning. Each are key to staying healthy this fall and winter, and yes, it's important to continue the practice of effective hand hygiene (wash your hands!)
Heidi Hurst is regional director of the Northern Nevada Immunization Coalition. Contact her at 770-6713 or Heidi.Hurst@chw.edu.