Keeping Health Care Workers Healthy During the Flu Season

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) urges health care workers and their employers to follow three basic steps this flu season to help prevent influenza infections in the health care workforce.

Flu shots for employees tops the list, followed by adherence to well-proven infection control practices when interacting with patients and the use of educational programs on infection avoidance in the workplace.

Health care workers are at risk of influenza infection from exposure to their patients, and patients potentially are at risk of contracting the disease when exposed to infected workers, creating a patient-safety hazard. Influenza contributes to approximately 36,000 deaths annually in the United States, with mortality increasing over the last 2 decades as the population ages and some viruses develop genetic changes that make them resistant to vaccines and antiviral medications.

“Health care workers are particularly vulnerable to influenza, and yet far too many don’t take proper steps to avoid it,” said ACOEM President Robert R. Orford, M.D. “Employers can help this situation by taking influenza control very seriously and implementing comprehensive prevention programs in the workplace.”

ACOEM suggests three steps to help health care workers and their employers avoid influenza as the flu season reaches its peak months:

1. Get a flu shot. Despite their work in settings in which influenza is easily transmitted, many health care workers fail to take this basic precautionary step. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that as few as 41 percent of health care workers gets flu shots each year. Flu shots are safe, effective and highly recommended – especially for health care workers in high-risk settings such as acute care hospitals. While flu shots should not be mandatory, ACOEM encourages employers of health care workers to do all they can to promote them, including providing flu shots free of charge and offering the shots at locations and times that are convenient to the worker. When managers support flu-shot programs and provide incentives to encourage participation, vaccination rates go up.

2. Adhere to good infection-control practices when with patients. These include hand-washing practices and respiratory etiquette, such as covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, using tissues for respiratory secretions and disposing of them properly. Good infection control practices can prevent the spread of influenza and health care workers who have had a flu shot should not assume that these simple precautions become irrelevant after they have been vaccinated.

3. Stay educated. Health care employers should stress the paramount importance of good infection control practices at all times and provide strong education programs for their employees. Education on prevention of respiratory virus transmission should be available in the workplace in a variety of formats for different learning styles; sessions must be at convenient times and locations, and in a language the worker understands. Educational sessions may be separate from, or combined with, a flu-shot program. Completion of required education should be monitored and enforced by the health care facility.

For more information, see ACOEM’s policy statement on Seasonal Influenza Prevention in Health Care Workers or visit the ACOEM Web site at http://www.acoem.org.

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