by Tammy Binford
The headlines are alarming. A virulent flu strain is striking in at least some parts of the country earlier than usual, possibly signaling a rougher-than-normal flu season. Employers who ignore the flu threat risk turning their workplaces into a flu-fueled fever frenzy that gets worse throughout the winter and into spring.
A survey from office products company Staples found that almost 80 percent of office workers polled reported that they go to work even when they know they’re sick. The survey also found that those who stay home are likely to go back to work while still contagious.
Why do people put themselves and others at risk? The Staples survey found that nearly half of workers came to work sick because they were concerned about getting their work done. More than a quarter said they wanted to avoid using a sick day even though most said their productivity level fell to about 50 percent when they were at work sick.
A loss in productivity is nothing to sneeze at. Estimates vary, but flu may account for as much as $10 billion in lost productivity during a typical year.
What employers should do
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises employers to promote flu vaccination among workers, encourage proper hand and respiratory hygiene practices, and educate workers on the signs and symptoms of influenza.
The CDC also offers employers resources to promote wellness during the flu season. The Make It Your Business to Fight the Flu: A Toolkit for Businesses and Employers provides information on how to host a vaccination clinic at work, links to flu facts, and print materials to distribute and post in the workplace.
The CDC also provides information on how to minimize risk of flu spreading through a workplace. The CDC advises:
- Getting vaccinated. The 2012-13 flu vaccine protects against 2009 H1N1 and two other influenza viruses – an H3N2 virus and an influenza B virus.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
Staying home when sick.
- Covering your mouth and nose with tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Cleaning hands often. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the National Institutes of Health, says to wash hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water isn’t available.
Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Proper cleaning within the workplace also can reduce flu risks. NIAID says studies have shown that flu viruses can survive on surfaces between two and eight hours. Flu viruses can be killed by heat (167-212 degrees Fahrenheit) and with chemicals including chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, detergents, iodine-based antiseptics, and alcohols if used in proper concentrations and applied for a sufficient time.
What employees should do
In spite of everyone’s best efforts, employees may still get the flu. Flu viruses are thought to be spread mainly by droplets when sick people cough, sneeze, or talk. People also can get flu by touching a surface contaminated with a flu virus and then touching their own mouth, eyes, or nose.
Even when employees stay away from work when sick, they might still be spreading flu to coworkers since most healthy adults are able to infect others one day before symptoms show up and up to seven days after becoming sick, according to NIAID.
The CDC says to be on the lookout for the following symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. A person doesn’t have to experience all symptoms to have flu. In fact, a person can have flu without having a fever.
The NIAID says anyone sick with flu symptoms should go home – and stay home. How long should sick individuals avoid contact with coworkers and others? The CDC recommends being fever free without benefit of fever-reducing medicine for at least 24 hours.
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.