As flu season approaches it is good to know how you can prevent yourself from getting sick and missing work.
Cold and flu prevention
Cold and flu spread more easily in the cold winter months because they thrive in colder, less humid environments. More people become infected with colds and flus in winter. In Australia, cold and flu infections are most likely to occur between May and September. At this time you have a higher risk of contracting colds and flus at work, because it is more likely your colleagues will catch colds and flus which they can pass on at work. That means you’re more likely to need time off work in winter to recover from a cold or flu, and this may interfere with work deadlines and your productivity at work.
Whether you work in an office, healthcare facility or other workplace, you are at risk of contracting a virus at work, from your colleagues or people who visit your workplace (e.g. patient if you work in a health facility or children if you are a childcare worker). While cold and flu viruses spread rapidly in indoor environments like offices, they can also spread in outdoor work environments, when they become airborne or contaminate a surface that many people touch, like the handle of a tool.
How do cold and flu spread?
Cold and flu viruses are highly contagious and the contagious period begins immediately afterinfection. 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 colleagues and workplace visitors to their virus, for example if they cough or sneeze at work.
Colds and flu cause employees to take more time off work overall and reduce their productivity when they go to work but are unwell. 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.
Stopping the spread of cold and flu viruses at work
Avoiding exposure to cold and flu viruses is the basis of prevention, and avoiding people who have a cold or flu is one important way to avoid exposure. 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. Employers should take measures to ensure staff who know they have a cold or flu stay away from work until their symptoms resolve and they are no longer contagious.