With the flu season still upon us, one is aware of how infections can be easily spread. Whilst the flu may not be an everyday threat in the workplace, there are other air borne pathogens and infections that can easily be picked up, if care is not taken to control their risk of spread. Occupations where there may be a risk of being infected include working with animals, working in hospitals and care establishments, handling waste material and working in environments or with equipment that could be contaminated. This does not include working in known high risk areas, like laboratories, where in such placesmore stringent and specialized control systems would be in place, such as worker immunisations.
If infections are just as likely to be caught outside the workplace as in it, such as the common cold, then this is not a responsibility under health and safety law. The three areas of controlling risk in the work place would involve identifying the hazards, assessing the risks and finally controlling the risks. If an employer has more than five employees, they are required to write down the findings of the assessment. If an employee catches an infection as a result of their work this must be reported to the HSE under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR). The law that needs to be adhered to as regards infections at work is the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).
Controlling the risks
- Once the hazards have been identified, the best ways of controlling them should be carried out. If particular equipment or a job task could be carried out in a safer way or not at all, then this should be the revised working method to protect the employee
- Hazardous waste should be controlled in a manner to minimize exposure to the employee, for example, wearing suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) in its disposal or when exposed to it
- For work involving close contact with other people or animals, one should always wash their hands before eating, drinking and carrying out personal grooming. All cuts and grazes should be covered to prevent the spread of infection
- PPE should be worn where necessary, i.e gloves, plastic aprons, rubber boots, water resistant clothing and face protection (e.g goggles, safety mask) if necessary
- If the work generates fine dust or aerosols where there is a hazard it may contain microorganisms, then respiratory breathing equipment may be necessary
- All equipment should be disinfected and cleaned regularily
- The air conditioning systems at work should be clean and not contaminate the air. There should be separate wash, changing and eating areas to the work area
- If employees wear protective clothing/uniform this should be washed separately to other personal clothing
- The workplace should be sanitized from vermin and insects
- Emergency situations must be planned for. An example could be where an employee is injured by a sharp or bit by an animal. In such situations, employees must have immediate access to medical treatment without delay
- If an area is open to members of the public, they must be advised of the risks (eg placing a slip hazard warning on a wet floor) and not allowed to enter hazardous areas