Information regarding the 2009 H1N1 flu seems to change every day, but there are some precautions that you can take now.
By Joan Shirikian-Hesselton
With precasters still working under severe economic pressures, all reports indicate that some major public health concerns could also start to impact their business operations. The health of employees during a potential outbreak of the 2009 H1N1 influenza will challenge all operations and play a critical role in trying to maintain business as usual.
The Center for Disease Control and The Public Health Agency of Canada remind us that business operations requiring close contact with fellow employees or the public face special considerations in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. While precasters are not alone in this situation, they do need to consider some unique business challenges as they develop strategies to aid in preventing workplace occurrences of the 2009 H1N1 flu. These are the same strategies that need to be implemented regarding any public health concern: Understand what you could be facing, be informed on the facts and have contingencies.
While health concerns can be daunting – and some of the information regarding the 2009 H1N1 flu appears to be changing with each news story – there are some basic steps that everyone needs to follow.
Employers must consider all employees. Strategies, information and education must be crafted so that all employees can understand it. As with other educational materials, information regarding the 2009 H1N1 virus may need to be provided in languages other than just English. This may be easier regarding the 2009 H1N1 virus, because there are many available resources. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov), Public Health Agency of Canada (www.publichealth.gc.ca), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (www.osha.gov), National Institute of Safety (www.cdc.gov/niosh/), along with state, county and local authorities and health departments (see the sidebar “References” for other resources).
Let’s start with some basic facts about the 2009 H1N1 virus that won’t change with time:
- The 2009 H1N1 flu, often referred to as “swine flu,” is a new influenza virus causing illness in humans. This new virus was first detected in the United States and Canada in April 2009. This virus is spreading from person to person probably in much the same way that normal seasonal influenza viruses spread. However, because this is a new virus and there is little to no immunity to it, it is spreading worldwide. On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) signaled that a pandemic of the 2009 H1N1 influenza was underway.
- This virus was originally called “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America. But further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs.
- Human infections with the new 2009 H1N1 virus continue to be ongoing (including in the United States and Canada). Most people who become ill with this new virus have recovered without requiring medical treatment. However, there have been some fatalities. CDC has determined that the 2009 H1N1 virus is contagious and is continuing to spread from human to human.
- Spread of the 2009 H1N1 virus is thought to occur in the same way that seasonal flu spreads. Flu viruses are spread mainly from person to person through coughing or sneezing by those already infected with the influenza virus. Some people may become infected by touching something – such as a surface or object – with flu viruses on it and then touching the mouth or nose. However, even as it is questioned how often the 2009 H1N1 virus is spread by this means, it is always imperative to maintain good hand hygiene. Other diseases are spread by poor hand hygiene, and anyone with weakened immunity is at a greater risk of contracting the 2009 H1N1 virus and other diseases.
- The symptoms of 2009 H1N1 flu virus in people include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu, including 2009 H1N1, and have respiratory symptoms without a fever. Severe illnesses and death have occurred as a result of illness associated with this virus.
- People infected with seasonal and 2009 H1N1 flu may infect others from one day before getting sick to five to seven days after. This can be longer in some people, especially children and people with weakened immune systems.
As an employer, you can do some basic things to help prepare your business in case your employees are affected by the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. First and foremost, make certain you have an up-to-date pandemic flu plan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute for Business & Home Safety (www.disastersafety.org) indicate that planning for pandemic influenza is essential to minimizing a pandemic’s impact on your business. Planning from the outset can help protect your business and your employees if flu conditions become more severe. Planning can help minimize disruption to business activities, protect employees’ health and safety, and limit the negative impact to the community, economy and society. There is more at stake than the global issues. Closer to home there are the personal elements. Handling issues up front can make the difference that ensures employees are able to stay healthy and your business can continue to operate through the critical period and beyond. An estimated 25 percent of businesses do not reopen after a major disaster, according to the Institute for Business and Home Safety. What is done by each individual and each business can help ensure a pandemic such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus does not become a major disaster.
As a precaster looks at the list of “Actions Employers Should Take Now” (www.precast.org/H1N1), several items are sure to make an impression. First and foremost, you need your employees at the plant working. Since no one wants to be sick and no one wants sick workers at work, all available proactive measures need to be taken.
Some things you can do as an employer include arranging for the seasonal flu vaccine for your employees (and include family members when possible) and, as it becomes available, arrange for the 2009 H1N1 vaccine. Prior to actually offering the vaccines, the employer can help increase employee participation in the program by providing information about the vaccines. One interactive way to achieve this is by inviting a health care professional into the workplace to provide information and answer questions on the vaccines. Make this program available to both the workforce and concerned family members. This allows families to obtain up-to-date information on the vaccines, their safety and the difference between the seasonal flu vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine. Since the number of immunizations will vary depending on age and how the vaccine is administered, it is important that employees and their families are comfortable with this information so they can make informed decisions about receiving the vaccines.
Another item that may jump out is hand hygiene and work surface cleanliness. Provide hand sanitizers in high-traffic areas and lunchrooms, and sanitize public areas to ensure that the precast plant, from the lunch room to the locker room, is maintained in the highest possible hygienic state. Regularly disinfect phones and office equipment.
Issue reminders regarding “community” snacks, especially as the holidays approach. Candy bowls and chip and dip plates can be tempting, but they may also unintentionally spread more than good taste to those that dip into them.
All personal protective equipment must continue to be properly and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between uses and whenever it is used by more than one individual. Use of
respirators for the 2009 H1N1 virus or other influenza concerns does not waive any other aspects of your respirator program. This is the time to review and reinforce all safety and first aid policies and ensure that basic hygiene is geared up a notch. Tool box talks should repeatedly remind employees regarding proper hygiene such as hand washing, covering one’s mouth with a tissue or upper arm (rather than the hand) when sneezing or coughing, proper disposal of used tissues and making certain all precautions are taken to avoid the workplace if one has flu symptoms. Posters outlining key facts are available for the worksite from the resource sources listed.
More information regarding H1N1 is becoming known daily. Some information is changing. The best resources for the most current information are the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (www.cdc.gov) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index-eng.php).
Information was the most up to date as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Oct. 25, 2009. For the latest information routinely check key resources.
Sidebar: Keeping Healthy: 10 Tips for Businesses Employees are a crucial resource at any business, and especially small businesses.
There are steps you can take now and during the flu season to help protect the health of your employees.
1. Develop policies that encourage ill workers to stay at home without fear of any reprisals.
2. Develop other flexible policies to allow workers to work from home (if feasible) and create other leave policies to enable workers to stay home to care for sick family members or care for children if schools close.
3. Provide resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants and disposable towels for workers to clean their hands and work surfaces.
4. Provide education and training materials in an easy-to-understand format and in the appropriate language and literacy level for all employees. Visit www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/business.
5. Instruct employees who are well but who have an ill family member at home with the flu that they can go to work as usual. These employees should monitor their health every day and notify their supervisor and stay home if they become ill. Employees who have a certain underlying medical condition or who are pregnant should promptly call their health care provider for advice if they become ill.
6. Encourage workers to obtain a seasonal influenza vaccine if it is appropriate for them according to CDC recommendations (www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm). This helps prevent illness from seasonal influenza strains that may circulate at the same time as the 2009 H1N1 flu.
7. Encourage employees to get the 2009 H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available if they are in a priority group according to CDC recommendations. For information on groups recommended for seasonal and H1N1 vaccines, please see www.flu.gov. Consider granting employees time off from work to get vaccinated when the vaccine is available in your community.
8. Provide workers with up-to-date information on influenza risk factors, protective behaviors and instruction on proper behaviors (for example, cough etiquette; touching eyes, nose and mouth; and hand hygiene).
9. Plan to implement practices to minimize face-to-face contact between workers if advised by the local health department. Consider the use of such strategies as extended use of e-mail, Web sites and teleconferences, encouraging flexible work arrangements (for example, telecommuting or flexible work hours) to reduce the number of workers who must be at the work site at the same time or in one specific location.
10. If an employee does become sick while at work, place the employee in a separate room or area until he can go home and away from other workers. If the employee needs to go into a common area prior to leaving, he or she should cover coughs/sneezes with a tissue or wear a facemask if available and tolerable. Ask the employee to go home as soon as possible.
Sidebar: H1N1 References
2009 H1N1 Flu Resources for Businesses and Employers
CDC Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to the 2009–2010 Influenza Season
Preparing for the Flu: A Communication Toolkit for Businesses and Employers
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Hotline
What Employers Can Do to Protect Workers from Pandemic Influenza (OSHA)
CDC/NIOSH Occupational Health Issues Associated with 2009 H1N1 Influenza Virus
Healthcare Workplaces Classified as Very High or High Exposure Risk for Pandemic Influenza
Cover Your Cough
Stopping the Spread of Germs at Work
Community Mitigation Measures
OSHA Website for Businesses
DHS.gov: For General Updates on 2009 H1N1 Influenza Preparedness and Response
Disaster Assistance and Recover Resources from the ASBDC
Central Repository of Federal Disaster Assistance from 13 Agencies
SBA Disaster Preparedness
Every Business Should Have an Emergency Plan
Official web site of Health Canada
One-Stop access to U.S. Government H1N1, avian and pandemic flu information
World Health Organization (WHO) Web site for the Influenza A (H1N1), which includes regular updates, Guidance Documents, Official Statements, and daily Situation updates.
Information updated daily by the Mexican government in response to the H1N1 Virus outbreak. It includes statistics, travel recommendations, video of the daily press conference from the Ministry of Health, information about preventive measures, etc.
Joan Shirikian-Hesselton is presently working as an independent Occupational
Safety and Health consultant. She has more than 30 years of experience in Occupational Safety and Health in both the public and private sectors, which includes a decade of dedicated experience in the precast/prestressed concrete industry. She is a past NPCA Safety Committee chair, and she has worked with OSHA as a Special Government Employee.
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