By Steve Reinberg
WEDNESDAY, Aug. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Telecommuting, flexible work hours and even keeping employees six-feet apart are all ways to reduce the spread and impact of H1N1 swine flu on America's businesses, government experts said in new guidelines issued Wednesday.
Above all, employers need to remain flexible as the fall/winter flu season approaches, because the extent and severity of the outbreak remains uncertain, according to the guidelines for businesses issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Companies need to plan for continuity of operations with a depleted workforce," Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said during a press conference Wednesday. "A little planning now will help ensure that our economy withstands whatever the H1N1 virus throws us this fall."
According to the CDC, more communities may be affected by both the H1N1 swine flu and the seasonal flu in coming months than last spring, and every business needs to have a swine flu action plan in place.
"Businesses play a key role in protecting employees' health and safety as well as limiting the negative impact to the economy and society, whether in regular flu season or during an outbreak of the H1N1," Locke said. Businesses can help by setting the "right tone" within their companies, he added. "That starts by letting employees know that if employees exhibit flu-like symptoms, they shouldn't come to work. If an employee shows symptoms during the workday, the CDC recommends that that employee be asked to go home."
Some of the key points for employers:
- Stay in touch with your local health department, and plan now to obtain accurate sources of information on flu outbreaks and school closures in your area. Also, track any spikes in absenteeism among staff.
- Encourage good flu-preventive hygiene, such as frequent hand washing, routine cleaning of commonly touched surfaces and "coughing etiquette," such as covering a cough or sneeze with tissue or a sleeve.
- Urge employees to get a flu shot once they become available, especially higher-risk individuals, such as pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions.
- If workers do get sick, sequester them from other employees while they await transport home and encourage them to stay away from work for 24 hours after fever has ended. Fever does not always accompany active flu, so this rule may still not catch everyone with H1N1 flu, the CDC notes.
- Don't penalize workers or discourage them from taking sick days. And prepare to allow workers to stay home to take care of children if illness strikes or if schools close. "Some businesses require doctor's notes or other paperwork to prove that they or their loved ones had to miss work because of illness. That's a requirement that employers should consider dropping, because it has the potential to overload the health care system that will likely be stressed during this year's flu season," Locke said.
- Consider creative ways to avoid person-to-person contact if the situation warrants it. This might include telecommuting from home, staggering shifts and spreading essential business knowledge among workers to ensure smooth workflow if a key employee becomes ill.
Of course, the H1N1 flu could be more severe than expected, and additional precautions might be advised then, the CDC said. This could include keeping sick workers home for a week after symptoms resolve. And it might also involve implementing a "six-foot rule," asking workers to maintain that distance from coworkers to help avoid transmission of the virus.
The new CDC recommendations follow on the heels of its guidelines for schools, issued earlier this month. At that time, experts stressed that the timely delivery of an H1N1 vaccine could help curb the outbreak. Vaccine trials have already begun in adults, and on Tuesday officials at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced that two clinical trials testing the effectiveness of candidate vaccines for children are set to "begin shortly."
Find out more on the new guidance for business at flu.gov.