Opinion | Wash your hands | Faith Eeson

LATHER UP: It's a brutal flu season.
LATHER UP: It's a brutal flu season.

Workplaces are reporting they are experiencing continual  absenteeism as the flu virus spreads.

This is affecting workers’ health and productivity, with the recovery period stretching over a number of weeks. The drier winter is said to be the reason for the prevalence, with the virus transmitted as people tend to huddle together in the cold, or collect in public places. 

NSW Health reported this is the worst flu season on record due to four active strains of the virus, with twice as many people having caught the virus compared with the same time last year. At the end of August more than 8000 people sought treatment for respiratory illness at emergency departments, with more than 2000 admissions to hospital in the same period with life-threatening conditions. Additionally, each year more than 800 people die from complications associated with the high A and B strain of the flu virus, with older people more susceptible to severe infection from the A strain. Unfortunately, in the past week, the media reported there had been a large number of deaths in aged-care facilities. 

Are infection-control strategies working?

Would the spread of the flu virus in workplaces and aged-care facilities be a health and safety issue? It is known that the flu virus is contagious, so preventive and precautionary measures should be implemented to protect the workforce and the community. The Work Health and Safety law places an obligation on the person conducting a business or an undertaking (PCBU), such as directors, management and business owners, to ensure a safe workplace and that workers should not cause harm to themselves and others. Does it then follow that the PCBU has a duty to stop the spread of this virus through the workforce?

Should workplaces be investigating how the virus has been transmitted to each host and then use this information to develop future strategies to prevent the spread of the virus? 

In terms of the deaths in the aged-care facilities, are the infection control strategies working, and where have they failed? What can be changed or implemented in future?

Workplaces have hand-sanitation stations and implement annual immunisation programs, especially in childcare and aged-care facilities. But are there simpler actions that can be taken that are more effective?

One thing that has been echoed since childhood is “wash your hands”, and this continues in childcare centres and schools. Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes discovered that the lack of hand-washing spread puerperal fever, which caused 70 per cent of women to die after childbirth.

The simple action of hand-washing after medical procedures led to fewer fatalities. Is the use of antibacterial hand sanitation gels effective as it should be, or should we return to regular hand-washing with soap and water?

Faith Eeson is a safety consultant with FOCCALE Safety Management