Swine flu

Update 2014

While numbers of people who were diagnosed with Swine Influenza (officially Influenza A - H1N1) in 2009 in Australia were high and a few deaths, most of the cases were relatively mild.  However for people with chronic medical conditions, influenza can be severe. This is evidenced every year in Australia, where roughly 2,500 people die from seasonal flu annually. Each year a strain of the swine or avian flu reaches Australia. The general recommendation from the health authorities is that people should get vaccinated.

Information from 2009 - but still relevant
Advice from Victoria's Chief Health Officer (July 24, 2009):

Pregnant women are not more at risk of catching human swine flu than the general population. However, there is an increased risk of complications during pregnancy, as with any type of flu, especially in the third trimester. Pregnant women are reminded to take extra care with hand hygiene this flu season, and to see their GP promptly if they develop flu-like symptoms.

This virus is behaving like a usual seasonal influenza virus, that is, it is mild and self limiting in the vast majority of people.  The increased level of influenza-like illness, and laboratory confirmed cases is consistent with usual patterns at this time of the year.  Also, Victoria has had a much more extensive testing program than other states, and therefore we are finding community cases that may be missed in other states. 

The virus has mainly affected young people, and many are mild infections. As young people mix and travel, it is inevitable that infections will spread, so having artificial travel or event restrictions is not a logical approach. Therefore, there is no medical or public health reason to defer travel to Victoria or to cancel major events.

All organisations should encourage staff who are ill not to come to work and to seek appropriate medical care if necessary.

Advice for Health and Safety Reps

Employers need to be examining and updating their management plans and strategies to protect their workforce, as the flu can spread quickly in workplaces. Under OHS law, it is the employer's responsibility to provide a safe and healthy working environment (see Duties of employers). The role of the reps (with help from their union) is to make sure the employer takes action now to protect workers. Here is a list of actions reps can take to help employers get ready and organised for a flu pandemic. 

In addition to the OHS implications, there are clear 'industrial' implications: what provisions are in place which enable workers to stay home, whether they have contracted the flu themselves or whether they are required to look after children whose schools/child care centres may have been required to close.

What to do:

  1. Review the employer's health and safety programs
    The first step is to decide if the employer is ready to deal with the health and safety issues of pandemic flu in the workplace.  Reps need to look at the employer's current programs, plans and policies so see whether they include an infection control plan for pandemic flu.  Reps need to ask for copies of these programs and plans if they don't already have them. The plans should include the following:
    • General health and safety program for the workplace,
    • An overall plan to help prevent the spread of the virus (infection control program - see AMA advice below),
    • Ways to identify workers most likely to be exposed or activities that are likely to expose workers,
    • Methods to control the spread of the virus,
    • A plan to monitor workers' health (section 22 of the OHS Act) to assist in identifying workers who may have H1N1,
    • Training on pandemic flu in the workplace and how workers will be told about risks, and
    • A plan to keep equipment and surfaces clean.
  2. Use the OHS Committee
    The OHS Committee should look over all employer health and safety plans - if there is no meeting planned, then the reps on the committee need to call an extraordinary meeting.  The committee should decide if these plans will protect workers during a pandemic flu by asking the following:
    • Are the current plans adequate to deal with the issues related to pandemic flu?
    • Can the plans be adapted with small changes in order to deal with pandemic flu?
    • Do the plans need major changes?
    • Do the plans need to be rewritten to include pandemic flu programs or policies?

      After considering these matters, the committee should make recommendations for change in order to protect the workers during a flu pandemic.If necessary, reps can seek the assistance of the union to negotiate or develop a pandemic flu plan.
  3. Review policies that may affect workers
    Reps should look over other policies that may affect workers during a flu pandemic. These policies should be amended to make sure they help workers and the employer when a flu pandemic arrives.
    Examples of such policies:
    • Sick leave and pay (should assist and support workers with the flu to stay home). For instance, the Queensland government has in place arrangements, should a 'Public Health Declaration' be issued, giving public servants access to an additional 20 days' sick leave if they have used up their existing sick leave entitlements.
    • Family leave and pay (should assist and support workers stay home to take care of  family members).  Again, in Queensland, any public service employee whose child or family member falls ill will be entitled to up to 20 days of Special Pandemic Leave, if their regular carer's leave and sick leave have been exhausted.
    • Policy for missing work (should not punish workers for staying home because of their own or a family member's illness)
    • Working from home (allowing workers to do this when possible)
    • Travel policy (any unnecessary travel, particularly overseas, should be cancelled; what happens when employees return from overseas?)
  4. Put policies and programs into action
    Reps, and their unions, should be encouraging employers to put health and safety policies for a flu pandemic in place now. Some of the actions that can be started immediately include:
    • Worker training
    • Monitoring of workers' health
    • Medical evaluations and fit-testing for respirators
    • Gathering health and safety items (eg respirators and other personal protective equipment, soap and hand washing materials, etc)
    • Studying the risks of coming into contact with the virus
    • Supporting and allowing workers to stay home when they have flu-like symptoms and
    • A vaccination program for seasonal flu
(based on the AFL-CIO Factsheet)

WorkSafe Advice

WorkSafe has a document providing information and advice to employers on managing health and safety risks associated with an influenza pandemic - it provides useful advice to employers on what they should be doing:  OHS preparedness for an influenza pandemic: A guide for employers 

The document explains how employers' duties under the Act apply to a flu pandemic. It also recommends that every organisation should ensure they have a 'business continuity plan' - that is a contingency plan of action to manage the business risk of a particular event, in this case the flu pandemic.  It states:

Good OHS practice in planning for a pandemic requires the employer to:
  1. Keep informed and up-to-date on pandemic information.
  2. Educate and keep employees up to date.
  3. Undertake OHS risk management by managing the direct and indirect risks.
  4. Incorporate OHS preparations and risk control measures into a business continuity plan.
  5. Review and evaluate risk control measures.
  6. Plan and manage the recovery phase of a pandemic.

Comcare advice

For workers under the Comcare system: Comcare's advice was that organisations without a flu pandemic preparedness plan should  do so immediately using the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's publication Pandemic planning in the workplace (see link below)

As a precautionary measure, Comcare suggests that organisations should also take the following steps to manage the risk for their people and operations:

  • identify any potential hazards
  • assess the risks (e.g. potential for exposure, level of exposure)
  • implement appropriate control measures (e.g. Personal Protective Equipment, working from home arrangements) 
  • continuously inform employees of the potential risks from this strain of influenza
  • stay up-to-date (e.g. monitor the media and health organisation reports) regarding any further developments that may have implications to the organisation.

Advice for individuals

Be immunised
The seasonal flu vaccine is not expected to provide protection against Human Swine Flu, however it is still recommended as protection against seasonal flu for people over 65 years old and those with chronic medical conditions. The pneumococcal vaccine is also recommended for people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions.

Know your risk
People who are at high risk due to conditions such as pregnancy, respiratory disease (such as asthma), heart disease, diabetes, renal disease, obesity and immunosuppression, are reminded to present to their doctor if they develop respiratory symptoms, so they can be treated as soon as possible.

Good hygiene remains vital

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
  • Throw the tissue in a plastic-lined rubbish bin after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hands cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth as germs spread that way.

If you feel unwell

  • Don't go to work or school if you have a mild flu-like illness.
  • Please call your GP if you have a moderate flu-like illness.
  • Please call your local hospital ONLY if you are seriously unwell with flu like symptoms.

More Information

  • The Victorian Government - Health department Resources on the H1N1 (Swine Flu) Virus.  Also:
    • Call the Influenza Hotline on 180 2007 or
    • Call Nurse-on-Call on 1300 606 024 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days) 
    • Doctors who want to report a suspected case call 1300 651 160
  • Preparing for a pandemic influenza - from the Federal Department of Health and Ageing
  • National Action plan for Human Influenza Pandemic  - from this page on the Prime Minister and Cabinet website, there's a downloadable document: Pandemic Planning in the Workplace
  • The WHO page on Swine Influenza. Information on this page tracks the evolving situation and provides access to both technical guidelines and information useful for the general public.

Last amended September 2014


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