Maintaining Workplace COVID-19 Precautions During Flu Season

This post first appeared on Risk Management Magazine. Read the original article.

As businesses in various industries navigate a safe return
to work for employees, a familiar occupational health hazard—flu season—may create
new challenges for risk management teams in the coming months. This year,
seasonal influenza represents another threat to productivity and a potential
for increased healthcare costs for many employers already facing unprecedented
challenges. The National
Council on Compensation Insurance
estimated that COVID-19 will cost up to
$81 billion in increased compensation costs in the United States. Employers,
particularly those who are self-insured, can also expect an increase in medical
costs estimated to be up to 7%. For employers, minimizing flu season’s impact will
come down to encouraging employees to take the necessary steps to protect
themselves, their families and their colleagues, and minimize the risk of
spreading infection.

Sharing Knowledge and Building Buy-in

From a risk management perspective, there is significant
overlap between flu season best practices and COVID-19 precautions. At the same
time, separating fact from fiction for either one of these is difficult when so
much information, often conflicting, is circulating. Providing useful,
evidenced-based information to your workforce about COVID-19 and the flu, as
well as steps to prevent them from spreading, can boost buy-in and increase
credibility around the protocols to which employees are being asked to adhere. Employers
should also consider using technology like mobile applications and text
messages to disseminate information in ways that to reach employees where they
are most accessible and likely to read the information.

Now more than ever, there is a clear business case to be
made for maintaining a healthy workforce. This is prompting many employers to
reevaluate health and wellness offerings and double down on precautions that
can help keep employees safe and slow the spread of both the flu and COVID-19.

Minimizing Seasonal Flu Risk

According to Harvard Medical School, the flu shot is more
important than ever
this year. While the ideal time get a flu shot is in early
fall before the season starts, it is still better to get the vaccination late
than foregoing it altogether. Minimizing cases of the flu is critical to
keeping hospital beds open for COVID-19 patients, and researchers have found
that the flu can make COVID-19 worse. Yet there is still a percentage of the
population reluctant to get a flu shot each year due to a fundamental
misunderstanding of how vaccines work or other fears. Some employees and their
families may skip the flu shot this year because they are avoiding health care
facilities out of concerns over COVID-19 transmission. Others may simply not
make it a priority in their time off, and still others may think that it is
simply too late in the season to be effective.

Employers have an opportunity to address all of these issues
and increase seasonal flu vaccines among workers. Providing clear, credible
information about the importance of the flu shot can help increase
participation. Further, offering flu shots on-site or giving employees a way to
get the shot during work hours can also increase the number of employees who
get it.

Staying Home if Sick

The established precautions for COVID-19 will also be
critical to slowing the spread of the flu. It is important to encourage your
workforce to stay home if they are not feeling well or exhibiting symptoms. In
the case of COVID-19, if they believe they may have been exposed to someone who
has contracted the virus, they should avoid the workplace until they are able
to get a test and receive the results. For workers with the flu, the Centers
for Disease Control recommends
staying home until at least 24 hours after
their fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medications, or after symptoms
have improved (at least 4 to 5 days after flu symptoms started). The
recommendation to stay home if you are sick is a proven best practice and is
often repeated during flu season. But too often, company cultures do not
reinforce this principle. It comes down to communication and culture—making
sure a culture of health and personal accountability takes precedence over
production deadlines or scheduling concerns. Avoiding work when unwell—whether
coronavirus or flu symptoms or other illnesses—is a major line of defense to stop
the spread of illness in the workplace.

Wearing a Mask

Just as businesses enforce wearing safety goggles, hard hats
or other protective gear to prevent on-the-job injuries, mask wearing should be
enforced to protect your workforce from spreading COVID-19, and can also help
slow the spread of the flu. According
to the CDC
, wearing a mask, especially indoors or where physical distancing
is a greater challenge, is one of the best tools to combat the virus. Employers
should cite this guidance to establish a clear, straightforward policy requiring
masks on-site. Employers should also strongly encourage their employees to
comply with this best practice outside of the workplace in public settings.
Companies can help enforce this line of protection by providing their workforce
with high-quality surgical masks.

Washing Your Hands

Handwashing and personal hygiene are a long-standing, proven
defense against contracting viruses. While this may seem like a common-sense safeguard,
it is one of the most important steps employees can take. Employers can communicate
the importance of this by posting reminders around the facility, installing
more hand sanitizing stations and incorporating regular breaks throughout the
day to facilitate handwashing.

Practicing Physical Distancing

While maintaining the recommended safe physical distance of six
feet may be more difficult in some settings, depending on the nature of the
particular industry, companies can take steps like amending shift schedules to
reduce the number of on-site employees present. However, businesses should also
consider the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on employees, and
should take care not to add anxiety over flu season to already stressed out
workers. Encouraging social interactions at a safe distance is just as critical
to help combat the toll the virus has taken on the health and wellbeing of
their workforce. To support this message, some employers have taken to calling
this practice “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.”

Screening for Symptoms

Headache, body ache, fatigue, loss of smell, fever and diarrhea
are among the most common symptoms of COVID-19 and can be tracked with
screening. Implementing a no-contact symptom check and temperature screening
daily for employees entering a facility helps eliminate the likelihood of
anyone with mild symptoms entering the workplace. This also serves as a useful way
for employees to be aware of potential symptoms. For employers still using
these screenings, monitoring for additional flu symptoms such as muscle aches,
cough and congestion is a good idea.

Effective Safety Protocols Start with Effective
Communication

Reinforcing the importance of masks, hand-washing, distancing, screenings and staying home with easily understood facts about the effectiveness of these steps empowers your workforce to protect themselves, their coworkers and their family and friends outside of the workplace.

These basic steps go a long way, but like any change, they
can result in disruption. Having an occupational medical practice at your
facility can help streamline the wellness program’s implementation and increase
its effectiveness. Moreover, a dedicated health and wellness team in the
workplace can reduce the burden on HR or other professionals charged with
facilitating employee health and wellness. Even during “normal” times, an
on-site wellness program supports reducing costs and encouraging employee health
by instituting programs that better address smoking cessation, hypertension and
weight management—all conditions that increase the likelihood of serious
illness, accidents or death.

COVID-19 has been an incredible challenge in workplaces
across the country, but we have seen workplaces step up and come together to
address this head-on. There is little doubt they will tackle flu season with
the same effective practices. Just like having a savvy CEO and CFO to maintain
a healthy bottom-line, having an occupational health expert at the management
table is an added layer of security to help protect your most important and
irreplaceable assets, your human capital. ­­

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