Turn Workers and Managers into Flu Fighters

The topic of flu prevention gets nearly continuous attention in the media, at least in northern U.S. cities, and every fall we are reminded — over and over again — to get a flu shot.

Preventing the flu really seems pretty simple: avoid close contact with sick people; stay home when you are sick; cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; wash your hands often; and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Yet people keep getting sick. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 20 percent of Americans will come down with the flu each winter. The annual direct medical costs of treating influenza in the U.S. — including hospitalization, seeing doctors and medications — are estimated by the CDC at $4.6 billion. Up to 111 million workdays are lost due to flu, leading to about $7 billion per year in sick days and lost workplace productivity.1 The flu can also be life-threatening for at-risk population groups. While most victims recover from the flu in a few days, influenza kills an average of 23,000 people each year in the U.S.2

Another estimate puts the total effect of the flu on the U.S. economy much higher: $87 billion dollars in lost productivity and direct medical costs associated with medical treatment.2

The federal government takes influenza so seriously that it tasks the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) with conducting surveillance, health hazard evaluations (HHEs) and substantial research into flu prevention.1

The surveillance program allows for early detection of flu outbreaks and can trigger prevention strategies after data analysis and trend monitoring. The HHE program also responds to requests from employers, employees and union representatives to evaluate occupational issues related to influenza and helps identify ways to reduce risks to workers.

NIOSH research on topics such as influenza transmission and respiratory protection leads to better knowledge and understanding of workplace influenza issues.1

Powerful Pandemics

One of the greatest concerns is a flu pandemic, where a particular flu virus sickens millions of people around the world at one time. A pandemic can occur at any time and can be mild, moderate or severe.3 For example, a flu pandemic in 2009 was considered by U.S. government health experts to be mild, yet it still created major problems and demonstrated that many companies were not prepared to deal with a pandemic.3

A pandemic flu plan should be based on a “worst-case” scenario, where the virus sickens and kills large numbers of people. Worst-case planning ensures that companies have the supplies and policies in place needed to protect their workers (For additional information on pandemic flu planning, see OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic,” at www.flu.gov.).

Of course, it’s impossible to stop everyone from getting the flu, but even if a company were to just reduce the incidence of flu among its workers, it could make significant improvements in the well-being and productivity of its workforce.

Wide World of Flu Bugs

Most experts believe that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets produced when infected people cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets land in the mouths or noses of other nearby people. A person can also get the flu by touching a surface or object with flu virus on it, then touching their own mouth, eyes or nose. As a result, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with flu germs can help slow the spread of influenza. In other words, management practices and intensive cleaning programs can help knock out flu germs before they infect workers.

While the basics of flu prevention are well known, it is good practice to remind employees of the actions they and management can take to prevent the spread of the disease. This should be done regularly and often in staff meetings, company newsletters, bulletin boards and other communications. These actions include3:

  • Encouraging workers to get the seasonal flu vaccine when it is available. Companies should consider hosting a flu vaccination clinic.
  • Telling sick workers to stay home. The CDC recommends that workers with a fever and respiratory symptoms stay home until 24 hours after their fever ends (100° F or lower) without the use of medication.
  • Maintaining flexible leave policies that encourage workers to stay home, without losing pay, if they are sick.
  • Having clear polices on who is responsible for helping ill workers.
  • Segregating ill workers from others. They should wear surgical masks, if possible, until they go home.
  • Promoting, through signs and other communications, frequent hand washing as well as coughing or sneezing into ones’ sleeves. Some health professionals argue that it is a better practice to wash your hands with regular soap for at least 20 seconds and rinse them for 20 seconds. Antimicrobial soap does not remove any more germs, and overuse of antimicrobials can lead to resistant flu strains.4

Encouraging employees, during a flu outbreak, not to shake hands with other employees and visitors and minimize face-to-face conferences, opting instead for teleconferences.

Keep it Clean

In addition to personal behavior and company policies, regular and thorough cleaning of the workplace is essential to controlling the flu. Since flu germs are spread by infected people, the germs go anywhere people do. As a result, companies must focus on facility-wide cleaning strategies that thoroughly disinfect — not just surface clean — key areas, including:

  • Bathroom sinks, toilets and drains;
  • Breakrooms where food is consumed (Kitchens and breakrooms should be stocked with antibacterial soap, water and clean scrubbing brushes. Breakrooms should have disposable cups and dishes for visitors.). Employees should be encouraged to restrict food consumption outside of workspaces since food helps grow and spread bacteria and fungus.2
  • Plant floor equipment, floors and countertops;
  • Office common areas and office equipment that could be touched or be in close proximity to flu-infected workers. For example, computer keyboards are prone to trapping germs, and after using them employees should clean their hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Also, while some companies prohibit their cleaning services from cleaning desktops, during flu season it may make sense to have them clean and disinfect desktops and computer keyboards and mice.2

Also, it should be company policy for employees and visitors to have ready access to supplies such as no-touch wastebaskets for used tissues, soap and water, alcohol-based hand wipes, disposable towels and cleaning and sanitation materials. Lobbies, halls, and restrooms should have these items in prominent locations.3

Routine disinfection of surfaces is vital. The CDC recommends daily sanitizing of surfaces and objects that are touched often — such as desks, countertops, doorknobs, computer keyboards, faucet handles and telephones — and immediate sanitizing of visibly soiled objects.5

Cleaning services must use effective cleaning products and techniques, including disinfecting countertops, walls, floors and equipment. To fight flu germs, they should use flat mops made of super-absorbent microfibers, in conjunction with a “no-dip” disinfecting solution, that can remove dirt from the small cracks and pores of a floor.2 Each fiber contains an electrostatic charge that locks the dirt to the mop. Traditional cleaning mops, by contrast, leave residual dirt after use.
Cleaning services should also use:

  • EPA-registered, hospital-grade cleaning products. Otherwise, the cleaning process may leave behind airborne and surface-bound residual chemicals; and
  • color-coded microfiber rags to clean surfaces. Color coding helps prevent cross- contamination by ensuring that desks are not being cleaned with the same rag used to clean bathrooms. 2

Products Power the Flu Fight

There is a wide range of cleaning products available that can help control workplace flu germs. Companies should be aware of the differences in these products and how they perform against flu germs. Some of these flu-fighting products include:

  • disinfectants, including bleach, other disinfectants, disinfectant cleaners, foodservice disinfectant cleaners, foodservice sanitizers and other sanitizers;
  • drain cleaners and maintainers, such as alkaline clog removers, beverage tower drain-line cleaners, drain maintainers, foam drain maintainers, grease-trap treatments and septic-tank treatments;
  • disinfectant wipes and germicidal wipes;
  • hand sanitizers, such as foam soap, antimicrobial and antibacterial soap, hand sanitizers, liquid soap, hand cleaners and hand sanitizer wipes;
  • automatic restroom dispensers (such as no-touch soap and paper towel dispensers); and
  • mops, squeegees and buckets, including wet mops (such as microfiber mops), squeegees, mop handles and frames, mop buckets, squeegee replacement blades and refills, and mop wringers.

Cleaning that Cares for the Environment

The trend toward environmentally preferable cleaning has changed the type of cleaning products many companies use regularly, according to the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA).6 Environmentally preferable means using products and services that have a reduced impact on human health and the environment compared to standard products. It is one of the practices included in President Obama’s Executive Order No. 13514 on environmentally preferable products to be used by the federal government.7

The marketplace has defined sustainable cleaning products based on public documents such as the ISSA’s CIMS-Green Building criteria, Illinois Guidelines and Specifications for the Green Cleaning Schools Act, and the 2009 edition of the U.S. Green Building Coalition’s LEED-Existing Building standards.6 For high-volume cleaning product categories, products are typically defined as environmentally preferable if they are:

  • Recognized by the EPA’s Design for the Environment Formulator Program;
  • Certified by Green Seal, a rating organization;
  • Certified by the Environmental Choice EcoLogo program; or
  • Based on independent documentation, the product meets at least one Green Seal standard: (GS-37 or GS-41) or EcoLogo standards (CCD-104, CCD-146, CCD-148).

The U.S. EPA Office of Environmentally Preferable Purchasing has published a comprehensive guidance document, “Greening your purchase of cleaning products.”8 Of course a sustainable cleaning product must be able to effectively eliminate flu viruses as effectively as its standard counterpart, but if it does, some companies may choose to use the sustainable product.

Fighting the Good Fight

It is unlikely that flu viruses will ever be completely eliminated, so companies and their employees must be constantly on guard during flu season to do whatever they can to keep themselves—and their coworkers—healthy and productive.Sources:

  1. NIOSH Flu Activities
  2. “Eight Steps to Reduce Workplace Flu Risk.” Infection Control Today, Jan. 6, 2011
  3. OSHA Flu Guidance
  4. Beating Colds and Flus
  5. CDC Cleaning Regimen
  6. ISSA Green Cleaning Products
  7. Presidential Executive Order No. 13514
  8. Environmentally Preferable Cleaners


Hand Hygiene Links