As if employers didn't have enough to worry about in the midst of flu season, which can potentially sap attendance and productivity, there's another infectious disease to worry about that you may not have ever considered before. Up until recently, you probably only heard about staph-related deaths on TV shows like House and E.R. But staph made real-life news when a high school student in Virginia died from a form of staph called Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureas (MRSA, for short). Other student deaths from MRSA occurred in Mississippi, New Hampshire, and New York.
News of those deaths should have employers thinking about the risk of MRSA infection in the workplace right along with the risk of the flu this season.
Cleanliness Is The Best Defense
What the flu and MRSA have in common is that, above all, practicing cleanliness both on a personal and workplace level best prevents infections. Here are two things your organization can do.
1. Promote frequent hand washing and good hygiene. Restroom and lounge facilities should have an abundant supply of soap. It's not a bad idea to also stock the workplace with hand sanitizers for extra insurance.
Employees should use a tissue when coughing/sneezing, cough/sneeze into their sleeve (versus their hand) if there are no tissues, and use a paper towel to open doors. Use the company newsletter and bulletin boards to spread the cleanliness word.
2. Ensure equipment and surfaces are routinely cleaned, giving extra attention to shared workspaces and locations where employees gather. MRSA-contaminated areas should be cleaned with detergent-based cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants.
Make sure the cleaning crew wipes down door handles, phones, buttons on fax machines, computer keyboards and mice, and anything else that employees touch throughout the day that may get overlooked (e.g., water cooler knobs, the microwave door). Encourage employees to routinely wipe down shared equipment after using it. Stock the worksite with disinfecting wipes, cleaning products, and sprays so they can do this.
Let's Talk About MRSA
MRSA is most frequently transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact, or by contact with shared items or surfaces that have come into contact with someone else's infection. In the workplace, employees may share office and protective equipment that has come into contact with staph bacteria.
The best ways to prevent MRSA are to practice good hygiene and cleanliness, cover wounds, and avoid skin-to-skin contact. Your organization can get involved in preventing MRSA by doing the following.
Have a supply of bandages available. Covering infected wounds helps prevent the spread of staph, so, if clean bandages are readily available, employees will be more likely to keep their wounds clean and covered.
Make sure there are trash receptacles throughout the facility for employees to dispose of bandages. According to the Centers for Disease Control, bandages can be discarded with the regular trash.
Train employees on the proper use, care, and disposal of personal protective equipment (e.g., uniforms, goggles, gloves). Monitor and retrain if necessary. Stress that employees should not share protective equipment. If an employee does become infected, inform any co-workers from whom the employee may have borrowed protective gear so they can get tested.
Launder uniforms and the like that may have been contaminated. Dry them in a hot dryer, rather than air-drying, to help kill bacteria.
Discourage employees from sharing personal items, such as towels or toiletries, whether in the company's own restroom or shower, or at an outside gym.
It's Flu Time
The federal government estimated that up to 60 million people each year get the flu, amounting to as many as 70 million missed workdays. This may mean the shutdown of a whole department or an entire company, depending on the size of the organization. Lessen the likelihood of the flu affecting your workplace in this way by:
Providing flu shots, either on-site or off-site. On-site: Let employees know what cost you will cover (full or partial); they need to sign up in advance; and participation is voluntary. Off-site: Inform employees whether you will provide full or partial reimbursement; and where they can get the vaccine, such as local health centers or retail pharmacy chains and supermarkets that have started providing flu shots to the public.
Permitting online shopping during non-work time to help employees avoid exposure to germs in crowded shopping centers.
Preparing employees to work from home. Send sick workers home to avoid infecting everyone else. Each department should have a plan for employees to work from home. This applies to not only the individual who is contagious, but also to healthy employees in the event of an outbreak anddecides they are better off staying home, too.
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