How Far Can Employers Go to Fight the Flu?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that influenza costs the United States more than $87 billion annually and is responsible for the loss of close to 17 million workdays each flu season. With absences of that magnitude (and the accompanying hit on productivity), it’s no wonder employers are eager to do whatever they can to mitigate the negative effects of the flu in their workplaces.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers a number of steps employers can take to protect workers and reduce the transmission of seasonal flu, including the following:

  • Promoting vaccination against the flu for all employees;
  • Encouraging sick workers to stay home;
  • Educating the workforce on proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette; and
  • Keeping the workplace clean.

Maybe you’re asking yourself, is this enough? What if I take these steps and my employees don’t cooperate? What if they blow off getting flu shots, come to work sick, infect their coworkers—what then?

Some employers in the health-care industry have policies that make flu shots mandatory for employees who come into contact with patients, especially those with compromised immune systems. Some states have laws requiring covered employers to ensure that their employees are vaccinated or otherwise protected from getting the flu.

Other employers might implement similar policies, but they’d have to tread carefully and consider the potential drawbacks:

  • Morale could suffer as some workers chafe at the idea of being forced to get flu shots.
  • Employers could face lawsuits from workers who claim they’ve been discriminated against because of religion or disability.
  • Administrative burdens could arise in connection with verifying that employees have been vaccinated or have legitimate reasons for not being vaccinated.
  • Since the vaccinations don’t guarantee complete protection against contracting the flu, employees could still get sick and miss work.

With pitfalls such as these, a policy that makes flu shots mandatory could cause employers more headaches and nausea than the virus itself!

Perhaps the recommendations from OSHA are the best way to go, and they can even be expanded upon. For example, employers can provide free flu shots at the workplace and make sure employees have ample opportunity to break away from their job duties to get the vaccinations.

If employees do get the flu, the encouragement to stay home can include assurances that their work will be covered, they won’t be viewed as shirking their responsibilities, and they’ll be provided with excused absences and paid leave for the period when they’re away from work.

Looking for hygiene hints to stop the spread of germs? The CDC offers some helpful tips here. And speaking of helpful advice, don’t let your own hectic schedule get in the way of finding time for a flu vaccination this year!

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