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23rd January 2015

Viruses – prevent the spread in all workplaces

Viruses - prevent the spread in all workplacesWorldwide, the incidence of infections increases rapidly with the cold weather, and the spread of infectious pathogens such as the influenza virus, common cold and other airborne infections are high in the work place environment. The transmission of influenza is by droplets, aerosol, or through direct contact with respiratory secretions of someone with the infection.

The presence and implementation of an infection control policy in any workplace environment will help to prevent, reduce, contain and manage the spread of a virus from one worker to another. The infection control policy will contain a requirement for a risk assessment to be undertaken by the business to help it to identify and understand any particular risks in its workplace.

There are legislative requirements on the employer to protect all employees and others, such as visitors, from harm. The employer can implement different measures and good practices to help support and minimise the impact of workplace illnesses. You should:

Conduct an infection control risk assessment

An employer should develop an infection control risk assessment following the HSE five step process. The five step process covers the following:
Identifying the hazards - what work does the person undertake and where could they be exposed to infectious agents.
Identifying who might be harmed - this will include the employees, visitors, contractors and vulnerable persons such as pregnant women or the elderly.
Evaluating the risks – how likely is the spread of different identified infections and what is the severity of the outcome? Will a large number of workers get ill, and how severe is the illness?
Recording your significant findings – develop the risk assessment and record in a suitable way for all personnel to understand.
Regularly reviewing your risk assessment – it is a live document and it must be remembered that the spread of infections is likely in different periods of the year; generally it is more prevalent in the winter months. The risk assessment will need to be reviewed after a significant change in the workplace. This could include a large number of workers absent from work due to illness.

Clean and disinfect surfaces to remove pathogenic microorganisms

Infection prevention is key for maintaining health and safety among the workforce. Infections can spread when people touch surfaces contaminated with illness-causing pathogens. Airborne infection at work causing influenza and colds can occur via:

  • putting contaminated hands and fingers (or pens etc.) into the mouth, nose or eyes;
  • breathing in infectious aerosols/droplets from the air, e.g. respiratory discharges such as coughs and sneezes.

The infection control risk assessment should identify the high touch areas where all workers come into contact with surfaces, mostly by touch. These surfaces include, but not limited to, door handles to enter and exit a building or room, water and tea/coffee making facilities, phones, desks, light switches, elevator buttons, toilets, wash basin taps and keyboards and other such work equipment. The higher the frequency of touching surfaces by multitudes of people then the higher the risk of making contact with viruses and other pathogens. A planned programme of frequent cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces should be implemented so that pathogenic microorganisms are removed. Thorough washing of communal crockery and cutlery, preferably in a dish washer, is required as a control measure.

Follow hand hygiene good practices

The concept of thorough hand hygiene technique is not just limited to the healthcare environment but should be used in all work environments. Hand hygiene is another important infection prevention method. A good hand hygiene practice will reduce or eliminate the transmission of pathogens from someone’s hands to a surface. Employees should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating, drinking or any other activity.

Increase information at different times of the year

It’s key to get employees on board with infection prevention strategies and teach them how to reduce the spread of illnesses. Organisations can also encourage proper etiquette for sick workers, such as coughing and sneezing into a disposable tissue.

HR policies

The organisation should develop an HR policy that clearly outlines the sickness procedure should a worker become ill. Management should watch for signs of employees working while sick, and discuss the importance of not being at work if they are unwell.

Communication and consultation

The employer should ensure that employees are on heightened alert about the increased risk of influenza and colds in the workplace during the colder months. Influenza spreads rapidly, especially in crowded areas. Most cases of influenza in the UK tend to occur during an eight- to ten-week period during the winter. Maintain an open communication stream with employees regarding their susceptibility to influenza and colds and the practical measures that they can take to prevent being exposed to such viruses, such as wearing warm clothing, using good hand hygiene methods, sleeping well, staying hydrated with warm drinks and avoiding overcrowded tubes and other public transport. The infection control policy should outline what information should be communicated to workers through different mediums, such as posters, email, intranet and team meetings. Posters strategically placed in toilets, near hand basins and in kitchens all help to increase awareness of preventing the spread of infectious agents.

QCS Infection Control Policy

QCS provides comprehensive guidance within the infection control policy that can support your business.


Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens - Infection at work: Controlling the risks
HSE - A brief guide to controlling risks in the workplace - Influenza: the green book, chapter 19

Sally Beck RGN, BSc (Hons), MSc, CMIOSH – QCS Expert Health and Safety Contributor

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