House Hearing: Ensuring Preparedness Against the Flu at School and Work

Protecting health care workers, first responders and other employees on the frontlines of a pandemic outbreak is key to strengthening the nation’s ability to fight viral outbreaks and keep the public safe, experts told the House Education and Labor Committee during a May 7 hearing.

The witnesses testified at the hearing to examine how the current H1N1 flu outbreak has challenged schools, childcare centers, colleges and workplaces.

"This outbreak has proven that a pandemic can have a ripple effect on our communities," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the committee. "In many cases, our morphing public health needs simply don’t align with our education and business needs. Especially in this economy, it’s critical to ensure that when an outbreak hits, students can keep learning and businesses and workers can continue to help move our economy forward."

While proper planning by schools and businesses and a well-coordinated response have been effective in helping reduce the threat of this outbreak, additional tools are needed to better protect school and workplace environments from future, imminent pandemics. Experts are predicting that a stronger strain of the H1N1 virus or a similar strain could hit again this fall.

"While events have progressed with great speed, this will be a marathon, not a sprint," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the interim deputy director for science and program at the Centers for Disease Control. "Even if this outbreak yet proves to be less serious than we might have initially feared, we can anticipate that we may have a subsequent or follow-on outbreak several months down the road."

Protecting First Responders

Witnesses urged the importance of ensuring that workers on the frontlines of a pandemic, such as health care workers and first responders, must be able to stay healthy and on the job when an outbreak hits.

"Our frontline healthcare workers are the foundation upon which our health care system is built," said Jordan Barab, the acting assistant secretary of OSHA. "If they are not able to work due to illness, or unwilling to work due to fears for their health, individual patients and the country’s entire health care structure will suffer."

A recent survey of almost 200,000 U.S. health care workers found that 57 percent of these workers had not been provided training on pandemic flu. More than half of these workers felt that their facility was not "ready for most things" that could arise in a flu pandemic. And only 33 percent thought that most health care workers would report to work during an actual flu pandemic.

"Currently there is no comprehensive federal standard to require employers to protect health care workers from an airborne virus like H1N1 or tuberculosis," said Miguel Antonio Garcia, a registered nurse in Los Angeles who has been treating patients for the current outbreak. "Protecting these workers will preserve our surge capacity to treat the infected."

Garcia also emphasized the need for better protective equipment for health care workers, like respirators specifically designed to protect against transmissible airborne viruses.

While OSHA has issued guidance and even has some specific standards relevant to pandemic flu, the agency does not have a mandatory standard that comprehensively addresses the workplace hazards posed by airborne transmissible diseases.

Critical Lessons

During her testimony, ORC Worldwide Senior Consultant Ann Brockhaus explained how many leading companies are ensuring that workers are protected from emerging infectious diseases. She identified three critical lessons that can help companies respond most appropriately to the H1N1 outbreak:

  1. Advance planning – ORC member companies benefited from having already implemented responsible emergency preparedness planning, much of it developed in response to SARS and Avian flu.
  2. Timely and consistent governmental information and guidance – The timeliness of the government messaging about the outbreak at the federal, state and local level has proven to be essential to company efforts to respond effectively to the outbreak.
  3. Making pandemic flu planning part of an overall safety and health management system – Placing influenza preparedness in a broader context, ORC Worldwide has long maintained that the best way to protect workers and companies is to implement an occupational safety and health management system focused on the reduction of all workplace safety and health risks.
  4. "It is well established that a basic foundation for effective worker protection is the establishment of a comprehensive safety and health management system which focuses on elimination of injuries and illnesses through a continuous process of identifying, assessing and reducing risks," Brockhaus said. "Companies with such systems in place and with the active engagement of senior leadership have been able to sustain the effort necessary to mobilize action in response to public health emergencies such as the current H1N1 outbreak."

    Related Articles:

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Report: Nation Not Ready for Pandemic Flu

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Fire/Emergency Response

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