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Use these return-to-work strategies for flu, H1N1
Consistency is key
As H1N1 and flu absences crop up in the workplace, your goal is twofold. You want employees to stay out only as long as necessary to limit lost productivity, yet you must keep them out of the workplace while infectious so they don't get others sick.
Jonathan Dawe, director of safety, health and workers' compensation at Atlanta-based Simmons Bedding Company, says that there have been only seven H1N1 cases out of 150 employees in the corporate office. He credits this to the company following its own policies consistently for staying home when sick, and managers diligently sending workers home if they display signs of infection.
When an associate recently came down with swine flu, she was told to stay out of work for seven days as per the company's policy. However, she had already used up all her sick and vacation days. "As a non-salaried employee, it would have posed a financial hardship to her to stay out," says Dawe. "So in cases of confirmed flu illness, we make an exception to our normal policy and cover that employees pay, so as to not bring people back to the workplace prematurely. You don't want to bring people back when they're acutely infectious. That is the key."
Dawe says that the company's manufacturing employees were hit less hard than the corporate office, which he attributes to a lack of close quarters to facilitate spread. "We stayed ahead of this. We have had a plan in place for years. We haven't had any impact on our business and it hasn't been any different than a typical flu season," says Dawe.
MD notes not required
"We have been very fortunate thus far this year, in that we have had no more than 20 cases of H1N1," reports Carol S. Harris, RN, BSN, COHN-S/CM, an occupational health nurse with Greensboro, NC-based Replacements, which has 550 employees. "We attribute this to our proactive approach to wellness. Our exercise program has many of our folks in good physical condition."
For the past two years, employees have been educated about hand washing, cough etiquette, and symptoms of illness. If employees are out sick, they return to work through occupational health services.
"We are following the CDC recommendations regarding health status," says Harris. "If our folks have been fever-free for 24 hours without medication, they are considered eligible to be evaluated for return to work."
However, employees must be seen by the occupational health nurse prior to clocking in and must be totally symptom-free for this to happen. "We are not requiring doctor's notes for H1N1, realizing that many doctors are not testing due to the large number of cases," Harris says. "To date, none of our folks that have returned to work have experienced any additional illness."
To keep illness to a minimum onsite, break rooms and restrooms are being cleaned very frequently. Hand sanitizer stations are at each employee entrance, throughout the building, at the showroom entrance, and the reception area. "We have hand washing and cough etiquette posters in multiple locations throughout the building," says Harris. "Education year round is essential!"
Contacts are screened
Bev Hagar, BSN, COHN-S, supervisor of employee health at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, says a system was developed where employees could call to be screened for influenza-like illness. "Managers were notified of the employee illness and expected return to work date, so they did not encourage the worker to return more quickly than appropriate," says Hagar.
In addition, PCR testing was offered through employee health to determine if the staff member was H1N1 positive. "If not, we were able to return the employee back to the job site in a timely manner," says Hagar. If positive, post-exposure follow-up is done for co-workers the positive employee may have been in contact with, if they worked while symptomatic. "Employees are screened for level of contact, and offered antivirals when appropriate," says Hagar.
For more information on return to work strategies for H1N1, contact:
Bev Hagar, BSN, COHN-S, Supervisor Employee Health, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Phone: (206) 341-0575. E-mail: Beverly.Hagar@vmmc.org