You’ve given your workers the training, tools and equipment to perform their job duties in a safe manner. But have you prepared them for cold and flu season?
If that seems like a silly question, consider this: During the 2012-2013 flu season, U.S. adults missed 230 million workdays due to flu-related illnesses, costing employers a whopping $30.4 billion in health care and lost productivity, according to a study commissioned by Walgreens. CDC estimates that 381,000 people were hospitalized with the flu last season.
While last year’s flu season was the worst in more than a decade, even a more typical flu season can produce staggering numbers. Each flu season (which roughly runs from October through mid-May) is responsible for 111 million lost workdays, according to data cited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Walgreens estimates that the 2010-2011 flu season – which falls into the “more typical” category – carried a $10.5 billion price tag for businesses.
Here’s the bottom line for employers: The potential impact of flu season is nothing to sneeze at.
“We know that we’re going to have a flu season every year. We just don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” says Dr. Mary Capelli-Schellpfeffer, medical director of Loyola University Health System Occupational Health Services. “And we also know that when it’s a rough flu season, it can close businesses.”
The impact of cold and flu season extends beyond absenteeism. Sick employees who report to work might be more apt to exercise poor judgment or make mistakes that can cause accidents or inflict some other financial harm on the business. “I truly believe it is a basic safety issue,” Capelli-Schellpfeffer says.
Like any other threat, though, flu season “can be managed if you plan for it,” Capelli-Schellpfeffer adds. She advises EHS professionals to develop a plan that includes strategies for:
• Preventing and mitigating flu outbreaks. The most effective strategy is to encourage employees to get flu vaccinations, or better yet, to provide onsite vaccinations (more on that below). Other measures include promoting frequent hand washing and other hand-hygiene best practices (see sidebar).
• Disseminating key information. Whether it’s via posters, placards, emails or newsletters (or some other communication medium), it’s important to educate employees on how they can maximize their chances of staying healthy, where they can obtain flu shots, when they should call in sick and other relevant topics during flu season.
• Maintaining critical business processes when workers are sick. Strategies might include cross-training employees to ensure coverage when people are absent, and leveraging telecommunications technology to enable associates to perform work from home. Regarding the latter point: Capelli-Schellpfeffer suggests codifying which work tasks can be done offsite “and what has to be done on premises.”
For anyone who is at least 6 months old, getting an annual flu shot is “the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses,” according to CDC. A flu vaccination – either in the form of a shot or a nasal spray – prompts the body to produce antibodies that protect “against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season,” according to the agency.
CDC advises employers to consider offering onsite flu vaccinations at no or low cost to workers. Businesses that have onsite health clinics are ideal for this, although CDC also notes that local pharmacies and community vaccinators can provide vaccination services on a contract basis.
The cost of the vaccine itself can range from $18 to $40, according to Capelli-Schellpfeffer. While many employers aren’t exactly eager to take on more costs in the midst of a plodding economic recovery, she suggests that EHS professionals present vaccination as an investment to protect the business – just as employers pay to have their sidewalks shoveled and parking lots plowed in the winter.
“This is where safety and health professionals really can have a voice, because they are very often in the scenario of laying out for leadership why prevention is an investment and not just a cost,” Capelli-Schellpfeffer says.
Read the companion story, Hand Hygiene: An Indispensable Weapon