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Cold and flu season has arrived ̶ Is your workplace prepared?

Cold and flu season has arrived. Cold and flu spread more easily in the cold winter months because they thrive in colder, less humid environments. Thus, between October and February of each year, virtually thousands of employees get sick with the cold and/or flu, and that translates into lost work time, reduced productivity and disruption of workplace operations. As we all know, the flu can wreak havoc in the workplace as it spreads very quickly.

What can employers do to minimize the impact of colds and influenzas (flus) on the workplace?

The first defense: an ounce of prevention

Throughout Canada, employers have a duty under occupational health and safety legislation to protect their employees from infectious diseases. How can employers accomplish this goal?

In order to prevent colds and flus from becoming widespread throughout the workplace, it is important to understand how they spread. Colds and flus are spread between people through coughing, sneezing or handling common objects that an infected person has touched.

Cold and flu viruses are highly contagious and the contagious period begins immediately after infection. In the early stage of infection, a person with a cold or flu does not have symptoms like blocked nose or coughing. Thus they are unaware that they are sick and may infect others unknowingly. Influenza is typically contagious for 24 hours before symptoms appear, and continues to be contagious for up to seven days. Common colds are typically most contagious for the initial 2–3 days of infection but may be passed on to others up to a week later.

People who go to work while they are infected with cold and flu may expose their co-workers and customers to their virus, for example if they cough or sneeze at work. Because it is not always possible to identify people who have a cold or flu and/or keep them away from the workplace, effective cold and flu prevention at work requires more than simply avoiding those known to be infected.

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, their cold or influenza virus becomes airborne and survives for approximately one hour in the air. If another person inhales the air carrying the cold or flu droplets, they can catch the virus. Respiratory droplets containing cold and flu viruses may also settle on surfaces in the vicinity of the infected person (within one metre of them). Other people who touch these surfaces may contaminate their hands and then infect themselves if they touch their face. People might also become infected by shaking hands or making other contact with infected individuals who have coughed or sneezed onto their hands.

Unlike colds, the flu carries with it symptoms including a high fever, fatigue, headaches, chills and sweats, and severe muscle aches.

The symptoms that the flu shares with colds include runny nose, sneezing and sore throat.

Employers should develop written cold/flu awareness and safety procedures in consultation with their Joint Health and Safety Committee or Health and Safety representative or with employees.

This will ensure proper hygiene practices are used in the workplace. Employers should emphasize to employees the importance of,

  • Equipping the workplace with a range of hygiene products i.e., tissues, soap, paper towels and disinfectant gels and wipes
  • Regularly washing hands with warm water and soap when they entering the workplace, after shaking hands with someone and throughout the day
  • Using hand sanitizers that should be placed throughout the workplace and
  • Cleanliness of common items (it may be necessary to increase the frequency of disinfecting common items in the company kitchen, washroom, and open workstations such as phones)

Furthermore, it is important to remind employees of proper etiquette; to cough or sneeze in the proper manner which means covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, and sneezing or coughing into the elbow, not into the hands. And to wash after coughing, sneezing or blowing their nose.

Also, it is important to encourage employees to get the annual flu vaccine. In fact, employers with larger workplaces may wish to organize flu shot clinics right on their premises.

Education is critical; it is important to train employees by providing information about the cold/flu so they can become more aware and catch any symptoms as soon as they arise. For workplaces that have employees constantly in contact with the public, employers need to drive home the point that employees will be more vulnerable to the cold/flu because they are more likely to contract it, so preventative measures are essential.

Once employees notify their employer that they have contracted a cold or the flu, it is important to encourage these employees to stay home and recover rather than coming to work with low productivity and infecting everyone else. It is very natural for employees to want to “work through the pain”, claiming they should “suck it up, buttercup”. Some may fear that they will be judged critically and suffer various negative consequences for taking time off of work to recover.

Thus it is important for employers to reassure employees that taking time off work is a necessary thing to do, and employees will not get in trouble or suffer any negative consequences as a result of attempting to properly rest and recover.

This will reduce the likelihood that your cold or flu virus will enter the workplace and infect others.

Have a long-term plan: implement a policy and procedures

It is also recommended that employers have a policy and guidelines that deal specifically with seasonal cold and flu season.

The things that should be in the policy include:

  • Requiring employees to stay home if they are sick with a cold or flu until they have recuperated and have a system to ensure they are not penalized for doing so
  • Stipulating that if employees show up to work ill, their supervisors/managers have the ability to screen them and send them home to recover
  • Requiring employees to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when necessary (list some examples)
  • Providing workplace etiquette on sneezing and coughing and hygiene practices
  • Encouraging employees to get the flu shot

In cases where it is discovered that an employee exhibits cold or flu-like symptoms, a supervisor or manager must provide the employee with the CDC or Health Canada list of cold/flu symptoms, must not solicit the nature of any medical condition from an employee, release the employee from work and direct the employee to remain at home until 24 hours after there is no longer a fever, or signs of a fever, without the use of fever reducing medicines, and must not pressure the employee to go to work despite being sick with the cold or flu.

Employers are also recommended to have regular sick leave policies. The policy should mention that other available leaves (statutory leaves, vacation, and accommodation) will be utilized if and when sick leave is exhausted. In the event that sufficient leave is not available, employees who are released from work due to the seasonal flu will not be disciplined for being absent without leave. In fact, it would be required that the manager or supervisor approve the leave. It is important to remember that human rights accommodation issues may be triggered as well if the flu is serious enough to be defined as a disability.

If employee denies having flu symptoms, and voluntarily indicates seasonal allergies or other conditions that may explain symptoms, employee should be directed to remember the cough/sneeze etiquette and to wash hands frequently. It is important to keep in mind that managers and supervisors cannot solicit the nature of the illness or request additional information related to the illness. That information must be volunteered by the employee.

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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