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Tips to prevent the spread of colds and flu in the workplace

The cold and flu season is underway and typically runs from November to April each year. The often close quarters of workplaces allow employees to easily spread cold and flu germs. These germs are transferred from person to person and surface to surface indoors. Employers must take preventive measures to fight these germs around their workplace, keep their employees safe and maintain productivity throughout the peak cold and flu season.

According to the Canadian Coalition for Influenza Immunization, every year influenza, or flu, affects employers and businesses. The flu costs businesses approximately one-half billion dollars annually. Absenteeism, interruptions of service and health benefit costs are all real challenges employers must face when their employees get influenza (flu) or a cold.

So what can employers and businesses do?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses. This said, in most workplaces in Canada, employers cannot require employees to get the flu vaccine. However, they can promote flu immunization by distributing or posting information, adding reminders to workplace correspondence and providing incentives, such as work time to attend a flu vaccination clinics. Any incentive program must be carefully designed to avoid imposing what amounts to a penalty against those who choose to opt out.

Employers can also host a voluntary flu vaccine clinic in the workplace. (For more information on how to hold such a clinic, contact the Ministry of Health of your province or territory or your local hospital.)

What other steps should employers take to protect employees during cold and flu season?

  • Employees who come to work sick or with flu symptoms, or who appear to develop flu symptoms during the work day, can and should be sent home to protect the workforce. Employers intending to do so should follow a consistent practice with respect to all employees to avoid discrimination claims. Preparing a written policy in advance and clearly communicating that policy to all employees can help avoid human rights claims down the road.
  • Employers should purchase and make available facial tissues (e.g., Kleenex), hand sanitizer and products for cleaning workspaces. Also consider investing in no-touch trashcans, sink faucets and hand dryers .
  • Encourage sick employees to stay home until they no longer have a fever or severe symptoms. Consider instituting a policy that allows employees to work from home if they or their kids are sick. Make sure employees have the technology available to them to work away from the office.
  • Promote good hygiene around the workplace. Remind all employees and customers of the importance of hand washing and covering their mouth if they sneeze or cough as well as washing hands afterwards. Encourage employees to regularly clean shared equipment such as phones and computers and wipe down common areas. Post reminders around the workplace in languages that all employees can easily understand.

For the above measures to work, it is important that the employer and the business owner follow their own advice. When you’re the boss, it can seem like an impossible task to take a sick day, but you are just contributing to the problem and setting a bad example if you go to work sick. Stay home and keep your germs out of the workplace.

For more practical information, visit the Canadian Coalition for Influenza Immunization.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Inc. Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 15 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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