For people with chronic medical conditions, the young and the old, influenza can be severe and even fatal.
Seasonal Influenza, 2019: this year health experts are warning that Australia is "on track for a killer flu season", with numbers showing three times as many people have been diagnosed with the virus so far this year, compared to the same period in previous years. In March, more than 10,000 people were diagnosed with the flu. In March 2018, that number was 3,173. The flu has already claimed 63 deaths this year. This year it is expected that the flu will kill about 4,000 people! (Read more: ABC news online.)
The health authorities recommend that people need to be vaccinated, even though the vaccination is not 100 per cent effective.
All organisations should encourage staff who are ill not to come to work and to seek appropriate medical care if necessary. (Read more: Presenteeism - what is it?)
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:
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 flu outbreaks. 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 the flu,
- Training on pandemic flu in the workplace and how workers will be told about risks, and
- A plan to keep equipment and surfaces clean.
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 a flu outbreak?
- Can the plans be adapted with small changes in order to deal with a flu outbreak?
- Do the plans need major changes?
- Do the plans need to be rewritten to include flu programs or policies?
After considering these matters, the committee should make recommendations for change in order to protect the workers during a flu outbreak.If necessary, reps can seek the assistance of the union to negotiate or develop a pandemic flu plan.
Review policies that may affect workers
Reps should look over other policies that may affect workers during a flu outbreak. These policies should be amended to make sure they help workers and the employer when a flu outbreak arrives.
Examples of such policies:
- Sick leave and pay (should assist and support workers with the flu to stay home).
- Family leave and pay (should assist and support workers stay home to take care of family members).
- 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?)
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
WorkSafe Victoria 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 (Note - while this year's flu has not been labelled a 'pandemic' - it's not 'swine' or 'bird' flu - it is still very serious and much of this advice applies)
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:
- Keep informed and up-to-date on pandemic information.
- Educate and keep employees up to date.
- Undertake OHS risk management by managing the direct and indirect risks.
- Incorporate OHS preparations and risk control measures into a business continuity plan.
- Review and evaluate risk control measures.
- Plan and manage the recovery phase of a pandemic.
Advice for individuals
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.
The Victorian Government - Health department Information on the 2019 Seasonal Flu. Also:
- Workplace Seasonal Influenza Vaccination kit
- More information on Influenza
- Call the Influenza Hotline on 180 2007 or
- Call Nurse-on-Call on 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Doctors who want to report a suspected case call 1300 651 160