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Keeping Your Workplace Healthy

By Catherine Gordon, JD | September 04, 2013

The last thing any business needs is for its employees to become ill with something that necessitates their absence and is highly communicable. For small businesses, ill employees can be even more of a hardship because there are usually fewer employees and no one to fill their slot if the employees are out sick.

There is also a tendency for small business owners and employees to be less likely to take time off no matter how sick they are because it's their business and they feel they simply can't rely on anyone else to fill in for them. This can be a challenge anytime illness strikes but is particularly tough during a crisis such as a looming flu pandemic.

There's no need to feel helpless - as an employer, you can take proactive steps that will go a long way towards protecting your workplace. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has recommended some basic steps that every employer can take to reduce the risk of exposure to pandemic influenza, and most also apply to preventing the spread of seasonal flu in the workplace:

  • Encourage sick employees to stay at home.
  • Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently with soap and water or with hand sanitizer if there is no soap or water available. Also, encourage your employees to avoid touching their noses, mouths and eyes.
  • Encourage employees to cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue, or to cough and sneeze into their upper sleeves if tissues are not available. All employees should wash their hands or use a hand sanitizer after they cough, sneeze or blow their noses.
  • Employees should avoid close contact with their coworkers and customers (maintain a separation of at least six feet). They should avoid shaking hands and always wash their hands after contact with others. Even if employees wear gloves, they should wash their hands upon removal of the gloves in case their hand(s) became contaminated during the removal process.
  • Provide customers and the public with tissues and trash receptacles, and with a place to wash or disinfect their hands.
  • Keep work surfaces, telephones, computer equipment and other frequently touched surfaces and office equipment clean. Be sure that any cleaner used is safe and will not harm employees or office equipment. Use only disinfectants registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and follow all directions and safety precautions indicated on the label.
  • Discourage employees from using other employees' phones, desks, offices or other work tools and equipment.
  • Minimize situations where groups of people are crowded together, such as in a meeting. Use e-mail, phones and text messages to communicate with each other. When meetings are necessary, avoid close contact by keeping a separation of at least six feet, where possible, and assure that there is proper ventilation in the meeting room.
  • Reducing or eliminating unnecessary social interactions can be very effective in controlling the spread of infectious diseases. Reconsider all situations that permit or require employees, customers and visitors (including family members) to enter the workplace. Workplaces that permit family visitors on site should consider restricting or eliminating that option during an influenza pandemic. Work sites with on-site day care should consider in advance whether these facilities will remain open or will be closed, and the impact of such decisions on employees and the business.
  • Promote healthy lifestyles, including good nutrition, exercise and smoking cessation. A person's overall health impacts their body's immune system and can affect his or her ability to fight off, or recover from, an infectious disease.

While many of these steps may just seem like common sense, in our busy lives it's easy to get complacent when a sense of urgency isn't there. Practicing many of these tips on a regular basis can go a long way toward having a healthy, productive workplace. For more worker safety and health guidance for planning for flu season, go to the OSHA website and the government's flu website.

Office & HR

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