Pandemic Protection for Employees

Work Practice and Engineering Controls

Historically, infection control professionals have relied on personal protective equipment (for example, surgical masks and gloves) to serve as a physical barrier in order to prevent the transmission of an infectious disease from one person to another. This reflects the fact that close interactions with infectious patients is an unavoidable part of many healthcare occupations. The principles of industrial hygiene demonstrate that work practice controls and engineering controls can also serve as barriers to transmission and are less reliant on employee behavior to provide protection. Work practice controls are procedures for safe and proper work that are used to reduce the duration, frequency or intensity of exposure to a hazard. When defining safe work practice controls, it is a good idea to ask your employees for their suggestions, since they have firsthand experience with the tasks. These controls should be understood and followed by managers, supervisors and employees. When work practice controls are insufficient to protect employees, some employers may also need engineering controls. Engineering controls involve making changes to the work environment to reduce work-related hazards. While these types of controls are preferred over all others because they make permanent changes that reduce exposure to hazards and do not rely on employee or customer behavior, they may be prohibitively expensive.

During a pandemic, engineering controls may be effective in reducing exposure to some sources of pandemic influenza and not others. For example, installing sneeze guards between customers and employees would provide a barrier to transmission. The use of barrier protections, such as sneeze guards, is common practice for both infection control and industrial hygiene. However, while the installation of sneeze guards may reduce or prevent transmission between customers and employees, transmission may still occur between coworkers. Therefore, administrative controls and public health measures should be implemented along with engineering controls.

Work Practice Controls

  • Providing resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectants and disposable towels for employees to clean their work surfaces
  • Encouraging employees to obtain a seasonal influenza vaccine (this helps to prevent illness from seasonal influenza strains that may continue to circulate)
  • Providing employees with up-to-date education and training on influenza risk factors, protective behaviors, and instruction on proper behaviors (for example, cough etiquette and care of personal protective equipment)
  • Developing policies to minimize contacts between employees and between employees and clients or customers

Engineering Controls

  • Installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards
  • Installing a drive-through window for customer service
  • Installing negative pressure ventilation in some limited healthcare settings, for aerosol generating procedures

Administrative Controls

Administrative controls include controlling employees' exposure by scheduling their work tasks in ways that minimize their exposure levels. These controls include:

  • Developing policies that encourage ill employees to stay at home without fear of any reprisals
  • Discontinuing unessential travel to locations with high illness transmission rates
  • Implementing practices to minimize face-to-face contact between employees such as e-mail, websites and teleconferences (Where possible, encourage flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting or flexible work hours to reduce the number of your employees who must be at work at one time or in one specific location.)
  • Considering home delivery of goods and services to reduce the number of clients or customers who must visit your workplace
  • Developing emergency communications plans (Maintain a forum for answering employees' concerns, and develop Internet based communications.)

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

While administrative and engineering controls and proper work practices are considered to be more effective in minimizing exposure to the influenza virus, the use of PPE may also be indicated during certain exposures. If used correctly, PPE can help prevent some exposures; however, they should not take the place of other prevention interventions, such as engineering controls, cough etiquette, and hand hygiene (see guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Personal protective equipment can include gloves, goggles, face shields, surgical masks, and respirators (for example, N-95). It is important that personal protective equipment be

  • Selected based upon the hazard to the employee
  • Properly fitted and some must be periodically refitted (e.g., respirators)
  • Conscientiously and properly worn
  • Regularly maintained and replaced, as necessary
  • Properly removed and disposed of to avoid contamination of self, others or the environment.

Employers are obligated to provide their employees with protective gear needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs. The types of PPE recommended for pandemic influenza will be based on the risk of contracting influenza while working and the availability of PPE. Check the www.pandemicflu.gov website for the latest guidance.

Click here for information on Classifying Employee Risk from Pandemic Influenza.

This information has been adapted from OSHA's Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic, 2007.