Preparing workplaces for seasonal colds and the flu

As the temperature drops, the number of colds and cases of the flu begin to rise. This isn't because low temperatures weaken people's immune systems. It's mostly because people are inside for longer periods of time and working in close quarters with one another.

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) states that 62 million cases of the common cold occur each year, and according to its most recent survey, 22 million days of work are lost annually. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that estimated annual direct costs of influenza are $4.6 billion. In addition, up to 111 million workdays are lost and an estimated $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity are lost because of the flu. Employers can help keep their employees safe from colds and the flu by instituting effective programs, educating workers, and supplying the right tools to keep them healthy and productive.

Receiving a flu vaccine doesn't guarantee that a person won't catch the flu or miss days from work, but it is a helpful precaution. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two strategies when it comes to encouraging vaccinations. Employers can either host an event or encourage employees to attend one nearby. Hosting a vaccination clinic can help an employer ensure that the largest number of workers have access to the vaccine. If your company is not hosting an onsite clinic, keep workers informed about where they can get flu vaccinations outside of the workplace. Partnering with an offsite health provider, pharmacy, or clinic is a good way to promote vaccinations in the community.

Stopping the spread
Flu vaccinations only protect against the most common strains of the virus, and colds can't usually be prevented, even with good hygiene and a strong immune system. Encouraging workers to stay home when they are sick is an easy way to help prevent employees from spreading illnesses.

The CDC recommends that workers stay home for at least 24 hours after their fevers have broken. Persistent respiratory issues such as coughing, sneezing, and runny noses should prevent workers from returning because they will likely spread the virus.

Good hygiene
Colds and the flu are transmitted by viruses, so it isn't difficult to help prevent spreading with a little bit of vigilance. Hand hygiene is key - encourage employees to wash their hands frequently and ensure that they know how to wash them properly. Using soap and water, washing for at least 20 seconds, and thoroughly rinsing and drying when finished is recommended. Post signs that tell workers, visitors, and clients the steps for proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette.

Alcohol-based cleansers are effective when hand washing isn't convenient. Supply moist wipes and hand sanitizers that contain alcohol to help prevent the spread of illness.

Coughing and sneezing are the most common ways that colds and the flu are transmitted. Promote cough and sneeze etiquette and provide tissues for all of your workers. It is also important to properly dispose of used tissues. Designate a no-touch wastebasket that's only cleaned by employees with gloves who immediately wash up after emptying it.

No employee wants to get sick, so there is always a strong incentive for workers to prevent the spread of colds and the flu. A lot of the preventative work needed to do this is in their hands. To help your employees stay healthy and productive this winter:

• Educate employees about vaccinations and flu symptoms
• Provide soap, water, and tissues
• Provide disinfectant and towelettes so workers can clean their tools and workstations
• Implement a flexible sick leave policy and include alternate resources, a pay policy, procedures for reporting flu symptoms, and returning to work

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