What should your workplace do to prepare for a possible flu pandemic? Keep informed, develop a plan, and implement public health programs are some of the tips offered to businesses by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Healthcare Practice Specialty group.
Many occupational safety, health, and environmental practitioners on the front lines of protecting workers have expressed concern over outbreaks of bird/avian flu. The Healthcare Practice Specialty notes that a pandemic is a global disease outbreak; an influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza A virus emerges for which there is little or no immunity in the human population and spreads easily from person-to-person worldwide. Recently, a virulent strain of the bird/avian flu, also known as H5N1, spread from Asia to Europe. The virus can infect humans as well as birds and can cause serious disease and death.
“In the past, flu pandemics have led to thousands of deaths in the U.S.,” ASSE President Jack H. Dobson, Jr., CSP, said. “This information could help in controlling the spread of a possible flu outbreak.”
Three strains of flu are most commonly discussed. The first form is seasonal flu, which happens every year in the U.S. and kills about 36,000 people annually. The second strain is bird flu or avian influenza, H5N1, which occurs among birds. However, in 1997, a lethal strain of H5N1 appeared among humans in Hong Kong hospitalizing 18 people and killing six people, according to officials. The victims had had close contact with poultry. As of December 2005, the H5N1 bird flu strain had only been transmitted from birds to humans, according to officials, who also note that there have been no reported cases of H5N1 passing from one person to another. The third form is pandemic flu. The H5N1 bird flu strain in Asia is causing concern about the possibility of a pandemic. If and when the H5N1 bird flu strain mutates to an H5N1 human pandemic strain, it could spread rapidly around the world within several weeks to months, according to officials.
From a workplace standpoint, avian flu may be more threatening to employees of poultry farms, other farm workers, and animal handlers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Guidance for Protecting Workers Against Avian Flu, it is these workers who are most likely to recognize an infected bird or animal.
The avian flu can be transmitted in many ways. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes “In an agricultural setting, animal manure containing influenza virus can contaminate dust and soil, causing infection when the contaminated dust is inhaled. Contaminated farm equipment, feed, cages, or shoes can carry the virus from farm to farm. The virus can also be carried on the bodies and feet of animals, such as rodents. The virus can survive, at cool temperatures, in contaminated manure for at least three months.
Dobson notes there are ways the infection can be controlled on farms, including the quarantining of infected farms and destruction of infected or potentially exposed flocks. However, avian influenza viruses are readily transmitted from farm to farm by mechanical means, such as by contaminated equipment, vehicles, feed, cages, shoes, and clothing.
There currently is no commercially available vaccine to protect people against the H5N1 virus that is being seen in Asia and Europe. However, research studies to test a vaccine to protect people against the H5N1 virus began in April 2005, and a series of clinical trials is under way.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, workplaces and individuals should:
- Develop and implement preparedness plans as one would for other public health emergencies;
- Participate and promote state and community public health efforts and implement prevention and control actions recommended by public health officials and providers who can supply information about the signs and symptoms of a specific disease outbreak and to communicate this information with employees;
- Participate in influenza vaccination programs annually, especially if at a high risk to acquire influenza infections;
- Participate in annual health promotion programs to prevent airborne, blood borne, waterborne, food borne and contact types of diseases and infections if you are a healthcare worker, school teacher, work in protecting public safety, prison population and an emergency responder;
- Adopt business and school practices that encourage sick employees/students to stay home;
- Anticipate how to function with a significant portion of the workforce/school population absent due to illness or caring for ill family members;
- Practice good health habits, including eating a balanced diet, exercising daily, and getting sufficient rest and take common-sense steps to stop the spread of germs — wash hands frequently with soap and hot water; wash hands before eating, drinking and before applying cosmetics and lip balm to prevent accidental ingestion of pathogens, eat only cooked meats and poultry, and, cover coughs and sneezes with tissues and try to stay away from others if you are sick;
- Stay informed about pandemic influenza and be prepared to respond; and
- Use national and local pandemic hotlines that will be established in the event f a global influenza outbreak; and consult www.pandemicflu.gov, the White House Web site, for updates on national and international information and strategies.
OSHA notes that highly pathogenic avian influenza is a select agent and must be worked with under Biosafety Level (BSL) 3+ laboratory conditions. Furthermore, all employers processing biologic specimens suspected of being infected with H5N1 must ensure that their employees comply with all provisions of 29 CFR 1910.1030 for employee protection against blood borne pathogens.
Contact the following for additional information:
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established avian flu public hotlines: Public 888-246-2675; Spanish 888-246-2857; and for Clinicians 877-246-4625;
- The World Health Organization; and
- physicians, employers, and employees should contact their state or local health departments.