It’s that Time Again: HR Needs to Prepare for Flu

By Roy Maurer October 31, 2012

The winter flu season is u​pon us. Employers need to prepare their employees for influenza, and that includes encouraging flu shots, examining sick leave policies, initiating and communicating basic flu prevention strategies, and ensuring cleanliness in the workplace.

As employers learned during the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009, it’s important to prepare for flu outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considered that pandemic to be mild, but some employers struggled to protect their workforces and saw sharp spikes in absenteeism and drops in productivity.

In its Oct. 19, 2012, report on the 2012-2013 flu season, the CDC stated that currently the incidence of flu in the United States remains low.

But that could change as the season advances. Health and safety officials advise that employers use this time to prepare for the implementation of controls to protect workers and reduce the transmission of the seasonal flu virus in the workplace. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers should:

  • Promote vaccination.
  • Encourage sick workers to stay home.
  • Promote hand hygiene and cough etiquette.
  • Keep the workplace clean.
  • Address travel concerns.

HR Should Promote Employee Vaccination

According to the CDC, the best way to avoid coming down with the flu is to get vaccinated.

OSHA does not require flu shots for employees, however, the agency advises employers to encourage their employees to get the shot, in order to maintain productivity and attendance in the workplace. Consider hosting a flu vaccination clinic in the workplace, OSHA advised. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, preventive services, including flu shots, are covered at no cost to workers enrolled in employer-provided health plans.

The CDC recommends against waiting to get vaccinated, because antibodies take about two weeks to develop and offer protection. The shot, which contains an inactivated virus, is recommended for everyone six months old and older. People between the ages of 2-49 years old may be able to get the vaccination in a nasal spray that contains a weakened form of the virus. The CDC reminds that a flu shot is needed even by those who got the vaccination last year. While the vaccine’s protection will last throughout the entire flu season, it does not last from year to year. In addition, the 2012-2013 vaccination contains protection against some strains that were not part of last year’s version, according to the CDC.

Examine Policies Allowing Sick Leave

Avoid compounding the flu with a case of presenteeism, or showing up at work but being unproductive because of illness. Staying home will help keep others in your office healthy as well. To help keep the flu away from the workplace, employers should re-examine their leave policies to ensure that people can take off when they are sick, the CDC said.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommended that workers who have a fever and respiratory symptoms stay at home until 24 hours after their fever ends without the use of medication.

OSHA advised HR professionals to develop flexible leave policies that encourage workers to stay home, without penalty, if they are sick. HR should also communicate other related policies with staff, including administrative leave transfer between employees, pay policy for sick leave, childcare options, and what to do when ill during travel.

Cover Your Cough and Other Hygiene Etiquette

The CDC stated that up to 80 percent of flu cases are spread by touching contaminated surfaces and by direct human contact. Employers should post signs that tell workers, visitors and clients the steps for proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette, OSHA advised.

Lobbies, halls and restrooms should have the following items and workers should know where they are:

  • No-touch wastebaskets for used tissues.
  • Soap and water.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Disposable towels.
  • Cleaning and sanitation materials.

Employees should be instructed to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to help keep germs from spreading. Used tissues should go in the wastebasket.

Hands should be washed often and scrubbed with soap and water for 20 seconds.

Employees should avoid shaking hands or coming in close contact with co-workers and others who may have a cold or the flu.

Keep the Workplace Clean

As cold and flu season ramps up, common hotbeds of germ activity such as telephones, elevator buttons, water fountains, computer keyboards, and bathroom faucets and door handles show how easy it is to come into contact with viruses that cause influenza. Cleaning frequently touched surfaces is one way to cut down on the number of cold and flu germs that are passed from one co-worker to another. Provide disinfectants and disposable towels for workers to use to clean their work spaces and surfaces and to keep work areas clean.

Address Sickness While on Travel

Reconsider business travel to areas with high illness rates, OSHA advised.

You can find up-to-date travel advisories here.

The CDC recommended the following measures for workers who become ill while on travel:

  • Advise workers who become ill while traveling or on temporary assignment to notify their supervisors.
  • Workers who become ill while traveling and are at increased risk of flu complications or are concerned about their illness should promptly call a health care provider.
  • Advise workers to check themselves for fever and any other signs of flu-like illness before starting travel and to notify their supervisors and stay home if they feel ill.

Additional flu prevention resources for the workplace include:

The Society for Human Resource Management Flu Resources Page

The CDC’s Seasonal Flu Information for Businesses and Employees

Business Planning Resource Page from

OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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