In a flu pandemic, businesses and other employers have an important role in protecting employees' health and safety. Many businesses also play a strong role in limiting the negative impact that a flu pandemic can have on the economy and society. Companies that provide important services in an emergency, such as power or communications services, also have a special responsibility to plan for continued operation in a crisis and should plan accordingly.
What Employers can do to Protect Workers in a Flu Pandemic
During a flu pandemic, employers can use what are known as occupational safety and health controls to help reduce the number of employees who get sick from the flu. These controls, listed from most effective to least effective, are:
- Engineering controls
- Administrative controls
- Work practices
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
Engineering controls involve making changes to the work environment to reduce work-related hazards. By reducing a hazard in the workplace, engineering controls can also be the most cost-effective type of control method. Examples of engineering controls include:
- Installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards.
- Installing a drive-through window for customer service.
- Using specialized ventilation equipment in healthcare settings.
Administrative controls change workers' work schedules and tasks in ways that minimize their exposure to workplace hazards. Examples of administrative controls include:
- Creating policies that encourage ill workers to stay at home.
- Stopping nonessential travel to high-risk locations.
- Finding ways to minimize face-to-face contact between workers, like using email or teleconferences. Where possible, encourage flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting or flexible work hours to reduce the number of workers who must be at the work site at one time or in one specific location.
- Creating emergency communications plans and responding to workers' concerns.
Work practices are procedures for safe and proper work that are used to reduce the exposure to a hazard. When defining safe work practice controls, it is a good idea to ask your workers for their suggestions, since they have first-hand experience with the tasks. These controls need to be understood and followed by managers, supervisors, and workers. Examples of work practices include:
- Promoting personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and disposable towels for workers to clean their work surfaces.
- Encouraging workers to obtain a seasonal influenza vaccine. This helps to prevent illness from seasonal influenza strains that may continue to circulate.
- Providing workers with up-to-date education and training on flu risk factors and how to protect themselves. This includes reminding them to cough into a tissue or their sleeve; avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth; and proper care of personal protective equipment.
- Providing education and training materials in an easy to understand format and in different languages and literacy levels for all employees.
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is protective gear needed to keep workers safe while performing their jobs. Examples of PPE include respirators, face shields, goggles, and disposable gloves. If used correctly, PPE can help prevent some exposures. However, they should not take the place of other types of prevention, such as engineering controls, cough etiquette, and hand hygiene.
The appropriate types of PPE to use during a pandemic will depend on the risk of contracting the flu. It is important that PPE be:
- Selected based on the specific risk to the worker
- Properly fitted (like respirators)
- Regularly and properly worn
- Regularly maintained and replaced
- If reusable, properly removed, cleaned, disinfected, and stored
For additional information on what employers can do to protect their workers, visit www.osha.gov.