Winter is the height of cold and flu season and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this year’s flu season is on track to be the worst in years.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the average worker will be out with the flu for 2.8 days.
The CDC estimates that yearly influenza outbreaks cost employers around $10.4 billion in direct expenses for healthcare and absenteeism.
Yet, the cost of presenteeism, those who come to work sick, can be even greater.
It is known that enclosed environments, where people are working or interacting in close proximity in an office building, public facility, leisure environment or education establishment, are at a higher risk for the spread of germs.
And, those who work in environments where sick individuals and pathogens are typically present — JanSan professionals in scores of facility types — are particularly at risk.
Sharon Kaleta, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, estimates that employees who come to work with the flu increase lost workdays by 10 percent to 30 percent.
The good news is that the power to fight the influenza virus is, literally, in our hands.
The CDC has consistently stated that handwashing is the single most effective means of preventing the spread of infection, and more than 20 studies from the CDC and around the world show that, on average, good hand hygiene practices can reduce illness and absence rates and the associated costs by around 40 percent.
Through their efforts to keep surfaces and hands clean, custodial professionals and building service contractors (BSCs) are on the front lines of the battle to fight workplace illness.
This seems like a given, but many are confused about what tangible steps they can take to make an immediate positive impact.
The Hand Hygiene Pentagon
As a leader in workplace skin care and hand hygiene, we work closely with service professionals across a wide range of industries and environments to help improve facility health and hygiene in places like healthcare facilities, schools, offices, arenas and even airplanes.
We’ve found that the most critical action steps in achieving the hand hygiene goal fall into five categories: Positioning, product selection, equipment decisions, education and vendor choice.
The first step in improving hand hygiene is providing ample and appropriate handwashing amenities in restrooms.
Added to this is strategically placing hand sanitizing stations away from washrooms and in areas where people enter an area or congregate, such as at reception desks and in break rooms.
2. Product selection
What people use to wash their hands is just as important as the washing itself, so choose wisely.
There are a wide range of new products on the market that are gentler to hands while offering powerful cleaning and antibacterial properties.
Because they spread more easily, require less water and are preferred by most users, foam soaps are a particularly good option to encourage more frequent and effective handwashing.
They also offer the added benefit of less mess and lower risk of leaks or drips that can both waste product and damage surfaces.
Hand sanitizers have also evolved in recent years to be much less harsh on hands.
3. Equipment decisions
While not necessary, the decision to use touch-free electronic sensor faucets and dispensers can also help control the spread of disease in the workplace.
Many maintenance technicians and facilities managers who have chosen this option have seen a decrease in workplace illness attributable to the touchless handwashing options available to their occupants.
Of course, whatever equipment is in place, it is crucial to clean and disinfect it frequently and keep it in good working order.
In a new survey by plumbing fixtures and washroom accessories manufacturer Bradley Corporation, 42 percent of people say they frequently or occasionally see others leave the restroom without washing their hands.
More than half estimate that they wash for just five to 15 seconds, short of the CDC recommendation of at least 20 seconds.
In fact, separate restroom studies from around the world show that less than 80 percent of people wash their hands at all, which means that one in five of the people are walking around with unwashed hands.
JanSan professionals can help stem this tide by posting educational materials near restroom facilities to educate people on proper handwashing frequency, duration and technique.
Many have placed clings on mirrors or placed posters beside sink areas, while others have worked with human resources or information technology departments to send reminders about hygiene and what to do if someone has flu-like symptoms through company newsletters or intranet sites.
5. Vendor choice
While it can be easy to view soap and sanitizer as a commodity buy and to see all vendors as equal, choosing the right partner can make life a lot easier for all involved.
Top vendors will work with customers to offer a range of options tailored to specific needs and price points, and several offer robust educational materials to help with the point above.
Some manufacturers offer a range of posters and other educational materials available for free download from their company website as a value-added perk to doing business.
While this may be the worst flu season in years, with advancements in products, technology and education, cleaning, maintenance and facilities management professionals are in an excellent position to help save the day.