Fighting viruses in the workplace

Oct. 29, 2008
Extending healthy and safety programs beyond workplace injuries

At this time of year, contagious viruses in the workplace can be a serious health and safety issue. Just like workplace injuries, contagious viruses can take workers off the job, hurt their quality of life and have the unpleasant and potentially dangerous characteristic of spreading from worker to worker resulting in even greater worker absenteeism. Following is a rundown on some contagious viruses and what companies can do about them.

Seasonal flu

The Center for Disease Control has selected Nov. 27 through Dec. 2 as National Influenza Vaccination Week, with one specific day that week designated as Children’s Vaccination Day. There’s a good reason why the federal government is concerned about keeping flu vaccination front and center in the public’s consciousness. It’s an illness almost everyone has had at least once, many people probably can’t count how many times they’ve gotten the flu over their lifetime. It’s easy to get complacent about the flu, and yet 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year as a result of flu-related complications and 36,000 die.

Seasonal flu is not the only communicable disease that infection control experts are keeping an eye on. There’s also avian (or bird) flu, pandemic flu, and Methicillian-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) or staph infections that are resistant to some antibiotics.

Avian flu

While the media has not been paying much attention to avian flu lately, health professionals are concerned that the continued spread of the avian virus across countries in eastern Asia and elsewhere represents a significant threat to human health.

In 2007, there were 72 new human cases of avian flu. Of those cases, 48 people died, which translates to a devastating mortality rate of 67%. There are 25 countries, including Canada and a number of European nations, that have reported animals with avian flu this year. Right now, humans cannot pass avian flu to each other. It is still considered communicable, however, because it is passed from animal to human.

The avian virus has raised concerns about a potential human pandemic because of the high mortality rate and the fact that humans have little natural immunity to it. Because of these factors, if avian flu becomes transmissible from person to person, it may very well spread rapidly and with little restraint, causing a global outbreak or pandemic.


Staph (staphylococcus aureus) is a type of bacteria commonly carried on the skin or in the nose of healthy people. Sometimes staph can cause a skin infection and can cause serious infections such as wound infections, bloodstream infections, and pneumonia.

Methicillian-resistant staph or MRSA refers to types of staph that are resistant to the antibiotic Methicillian. Some in the health community are beginning to refer to MRSA as multi-drug resistant staphylococcus aureus, because there are increasing types of staph that are resistant to other antibiotics and drugs as well.

Staph infections, including MRSA, occur most frequently in hospitals. Staph and MRSA infections acquired by persons who have not been hospitalized within the past year are known as community-associated MRSA. These infections have been getting a fair amount of attention lately because occurrences in the general community are becoming more widespread than public health authorities had anticipated. Hospital-related staph and MRSA are paralleling what’s happening in the community and are also on the rise. The reason for the increase in drug-resistant staph has been attributed to the pervasive use and misuse of antibiotics by the medical community as well as the increasing amount of antibiotics in our animal-derived food sources.

In 2005, there were 94,000 cases of MRSA and 19,000 deaths, outpacing AIDS-related deaths by more than 6,000.


The typical symptoms of seasonal flu usually begin with a sore throat, followed by fever, head ache, tiredness, muscle ache, dry cough, runny or stuffy nose, and sometimes stomach symptoms. 

With avian flu, symptoms in humans have ranged from typical seasonal flu-like symptoms to eye infections, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases (such as acute respiratory distress), and other severe and life-threatening complications. The symptoms of avian influenza may depend on which virus caused the infection.

Staph bacteria, including MRSA, can cause skin infections that may look like a pimple or boil and can be red, swollen, painful or have pus or other drainage.


The best prevention for seasonal flu is to get vaccinated, especially kids and individuals over 50, who are most at risk. Flu has the capability to mutate slightly, so there are hundreds of different types and each year’s federally-approved prescription antiviral drugs (or flu shot) are based on seasonal outbreak data – that year’s most common flu strains. Getting vaccinated consistently helps develop antibodies in your system against many strains of flu. These vaccinations may also be of some benefit in treating avian flu in humans, should a pandemic occur.

Seasonal flu spreads from person to person through coughing, sneezing, touching contaminated surfaces and subsequently touching the nose or mouth. The same general precautions should be taken to prevent any type of flu. Practice good hygiene. Keep your hands clean by thoroughly washing with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and if you are sick, stay at home except to get medical attention. There are additional precautions that should be taken for those that handle poultry or poultry products.

MRSA is spread through the 5 Cs – Crowding and subsequently frequent skin-to-skin Contact, lack of Cleanliness, Compromised skin (cuts) and Contaminated surfaces and items. Good hand hygiene practices should also be followed, and cuts and scrapes should be kept clean and covered with a bandage until healed. Contact should be avoided with other people’s wounds or bandages and people should avoid sharing personal items such as uniforms, personal protective equipment, or toilet items.


While getting a flu vaccine each year is the best way to protect you from the flu, antiviral drugs can be used as a second line of defense to treat the flu or to prevent flu infection.

For treatment, antiviral drugs should be started within two days after becoming sick. When used this way, these drugs can reduce the severity of flu symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by one or two days. They also may make you less contagious to other people.

Antiviral drugs approved for flu may be of some benefit in treating avian flu infection in humans. Additional drugs may be developed for avian flu but it’s not known yet whether they will be effective.

Many staph skin infections can be treated by draining the abscess or boil and may not require antibiotics. However, other staph and MRSA infections are treated with antibiotics.

In the workplace

Whether seasonal flu, pandemic flu, or MRSA, companies should always place importance on worker safety and health protection. They have a responsibility to make sure that there are abundant facilities and supplies to encourage workers to practice good hygiene, that the workplace is kept clean, and that contaminated equipment and surfaces are cleaned with detergent-based cleaners or EPA-registered disinfectants.

Companies can also use information from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) or government agencies to educate their workers. So that nothing is overlooked, especially in a time of crisis, a company should develop written plans, including identifying responsible departments and staff, clarifying sick leave policies, developing policies to help reduce spreading the virus (such as segregating workers from each other or working in shifts) and planning ahead for the disruption of essential services.

I can’t reiterate enough how important it is to have written plans in place that take into consideration a pandemic event. I recently asked a room of about 150 health and safety professionals whether pandemic preparations had been discussed at their company. Almost everyone raised a hand but when I asked how many of these had been incorporated into the company’s written health and safety plan, only three hands went up.

Companies should also ensure they have adequate and informed staff to develop and implement a contagious disease plan. The industrial hygiene community has been at the forefront of efforts to provide information on protecting the workforce in a pandemic. The Role of an Industrial Hygienist in a Pandemic Handguide, published by the AIHA, is a very useful tool for everyone from an onsite occupational nurse to a safety manager.

For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association website at

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