Question:

I keep hearing about swine flu and wonder if I should be taking any special precautions in my company to protect my employees, customers, and my business?

Answer:

Many employers are concerned about this issue for obvious practical reasons. Additionally, California law specifically provides that every employer shall furnish a place of employment that is safe and healthful for the employees working there, and employers are required to take steps to accomplish that goal. There are many resources available for employers to learn about safety measures to take in the workplace as a result of the swine flu outbreak. “Swine flu,” or H1N1 flu, is an Influenza A virus normally found in pigs. Although this new virus is called “swine flu,” it is not transmitted from pigs to humans, or from eating pork products. Like other respiratory diseases, it is spread from person to person through coughs and sneezes. Symptoms are similar to those of seasonal flu and typically include fever, cough and sore throat. Additional symptoms may include headache, chills and fatigue. Persons with H1N1 flu are contagious for up to seven days after the onset of illness and possibly longer if they are still symptomatic. As of last week there were 5 confirmed and 5 probable cases of swine flu in Monterey County.

Although it is still unclear as to how severe this disease will become, and whether it will be widespread, all California employers are encouraged to review their strategies for protecting the health of their employees and customers, including their pandemic flu or other emergency plans.

Some steps to take to protect your workplace include:

  • Encourage employees to take action to reduce the risk of infection, including frequent hand washing, coughing/sneezing into a tissue or elbow, and avoid touching their eyes, mouth and nose. Employers may want to make hand sanitizer available, and provide more frequent cleaning of keyboards, telephones, work spaces, reception areas, and other common areas.
  • Establish policies for restricting travel to affected geographic areas (consider both domestic and international sites), and consider teleconferencing to avoid travel. The Center for Disease Control has issued a travel health warning to avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico. See the CDC website for travel related updates,
    http://www.cdc.gov/travel.
  • Anticipate employee absences due to personal illness or family member illness. The Center for Disease Control strongly recommends home isolation for individuals who develop influenza symptoms, like fever with either cough or sore throat. The recommended isolation period is 7 days after the onset of illness, or at least 24 hours after symptoms have resolved, whichever is longer.
  • Consider guidelines to modify the frequency and type of face-to-face contact (e.g. hand-shaking, seating in meetings, office layout, shared workstations) among employees and between employees and customers.
  • Encourage annual influenza vaccination for employees.
  • If you don’t already have a paid sick leave policy, anticipate the need for employees to take sick leave and consider how employees will obtain wage replacement if they do not have paid sick leave. Your company does not want to be in a position of having ill and contagious employees coming to work sick because they cannot afford to stay home.
  • Consider policies for flexible worksite (e.g. telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g. staggered shifts) in case of staff shortages occasioned by employee illness, or for staff to work from home if needed due to illness.
  • Employers may wish to assemble a pandemic team or designate an individual to coordinate a pandemic response plan. The plan may include processes for providing updated health information to employees, and communicating with managers and employees about operations, cleaning protocols, leave, and benefits. A good plan will also consider how a decrease in staffing may be managed effectively, while continuing business operations. Finally, if there is an outbreak of H1N1 in your workplace, employee concerns about their safety should be addressed.

In addition to these steps, Cal/OSHA has issued guidance for employers and employees on its web site,
http://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/SwineFlu/SwineFlu.htm.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (http://www.hhs.gov/), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also developed guidelines, including checklists, to assist businesses, industries, and other employers in planning for a pandemic outbreak as well as for other comparable catastrophes.
See http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/#stay_healthy
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