As health experts raised the threat level of the swine flu to five, indicating “a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent,” some U.S. businesses are just now beginning to look at ways to prepare for the potential health, social and economic impact of a flu pandemic, says a press release from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).

“Planning for pandemic influenza is critical, and the business community must not delay in considering the impact of a pandemic and to adjust their company’s employee health and safety plans accordingly,” says Lindsey Booher, CIH, CSP, AIHA president. “Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their employees, and by following guidelines based on traditional infection control and industrial hygiene practices, employers can play a key role in protecting their employees from influenza and other communicable illnesses.”

During a pandemic flu outbreak, industrial hygienists will have responsibility for both ensuring worker health and safety and maintaining an adequate workforce to accommodate changes in workflow and production. As industrial hygienists play a major role in the control of infectious diseases, they already undertake the critical function of educating employers and governments about the effectiveness of industrial hygiene expertise, tools and processes that will control infectious diseases.

AIHA offers a reference, “The Role of the Industrial Hygienist in a Pandemic,” that is written by the AIHA Biosafety and Environmental Microbiology Committee and provides resources, information, and tools to advise and assist general workers, health care workers, and management to protect workers in the case of a flu pandemic. This guide identifies hazards, risk groups and recommended controls; offers a communication plan; describes the impact of a flu pandemic on organizations; and lists key resources to contact for further information.

To assist business leaders in their efforts, AIHA has developed the following guidelines of industrial hygiene initiatives in preparation or in the event of a pandemic. Employers and employees should use these guidelines to help identify risk levels in workplace settings and appropriate measures that include good hygiene, cough etiquette, social distancing and staying home from work when ill.

Workplace Access and Security
  • Restrict and monitor workplace access.
  • Establish criteria for refusal of access to unfit workers and criteria for return-to-work.
  • Implement telework capabilities where feasible.
  • Develop infrastructure to manage meetings by conference call or videoconferencing — when meetings are necessary, keep a separation of at least 6 feet from colleagues and ensure there is adequate ventilation.
  • Reduce or eliminate noncritical social interactions.
  • Encourage job rotation or staggered shifts to reduce workplace capacity as well as worker exposure risks related to traveling on public transit during peak times.
  • Segregate/isolate critical work clusters.
  • Reduce or eliminate work in low-ventilated areas.
  • Minimize the use of shared facilities for eating and smoking by staggering meals and breaks or designating multiple sites.
  • Reduce or eliminate work travel to high-risk regions and encourage workers who are traveling to stay away in the event of a local outbreak.
  • Initiate a snow day practice or “reverse quarantine” for nonessential workers.
Labor Relations
  • Identify critical production needs and reduce nonessential production.
  • Compile priority requirements for key workers with respect to personal protective equipment and training.
  • Engage management and workers/union parties in discussions on safe work practices, grievance procedures, and contingencies available for workforce, supply chain and production.
  • Maintain effective communications between all workplace parties.
  • Address dispute resolution regarding health and safety/safe work issues.
  • Identify and mitigate unique exposure risks posed by multiple jobs and shifts by part-time or occasional workers.
  • Establish call-in hotline.
  • Create up-to-the-minute Web splash page.
  • Launch dedicated “grapevine.”
Germ Control
  • Develop a sick leave policy that does not penalize sick employees and encourages them to stay home — recognize that employees with ill family members may need to stay home to care for them.
  • Provide resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene — provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and disposable towels (for employees to clean their work surfaces).
  • Encourage employees to wash hands frequently and avoid touching nose, mouth, and eyes — germs can live for two hours or more on surfaces.
  • Encourage employees to cover their coughs and sneezes.
  • Provide employees with up-to-date education and training on flu risk factors, protective behaviors, and instruction on proper behaviors (proper cough etiquette and care of personal protective equipment).
  • Keep work surfaces, telephones, computer equipment and other frequently touched surfaces and office equipment clean.
  • Discourage employees from using phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment that are not their own.
  • Promote healthy lifestyles that include plenty of sleep, physical activity, good nutrition, stress management, drinking plenty of fluids, and smoking cessation.
  • Cover mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough either with a tissue or upper sleeves then clean your hands.
  • Clean hands often, and when possible, wash with soap and warm water, rub vigorously together and scrub all surfaces for 15 to 20 seconds.
  • When soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers, rubbing hands until dry.