New OSHA guidance targets pandemic flu

Feb 8, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Labor (DOL) has introduced workplace health guidelines to help businesses understand their pandemic influenza risks and what they need to do to prepare.

The guidelines, released Feb 6 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), were developed with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and offer advice for all types of work settings, from retail stores to hospitals. The 47-page document is part of a national pandemic preparation effort detailed in President Bush's pandemic strategy, the DOL said in a press release.

"In anticipation of a flu pandemic, our top priority is protecting the safety and health of America's working men and women," said Edwin G Foulke Jr, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. "Employers and employees should use this guidance to help identify risk levels and implement appropriate control measures to prevent illness in the workplace."

The centerpiece of the guidance is a four-level pyramid that stratifies workplaces by pandemic flu risk zones and links each zone with suggested preventive steps. For example, a data-entry office with little contact with the public would be classified as a lower-risk zone, while a dentist's office where aerosol-generating procedures are performed would be a "very high" risk zone.

Recommended prevention measures range from supplying workers in lower-risk settings with soap, sanitizer, and other supplies to outfitting employees in high-risk jobs with appropriate respirators.

The guide walks employers through several pandemic preparation steps, such as stockpiling infection control supplies and providing employees with a central source for pandemic flu information. The document details what businesses should include in their pandemic plans and offers employers several suggestions about how to maintain business operations during a pandemic. Examples include installing plastic sneeze shields in customer-contact areas to minimize exposure to the virus and expanding Internet, drive-through, or home-delivery customer service strategies.

The guide also discusses personal protective equipment for employees. It explains the capabilities and limitations of masks and respirators and walks employers through various respirator options, from disposable N95 masks to models that resist industrial oils.

Former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, who frequently coaches businesses on pandemic preparations in his current role as chairman of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, praised OSHA for issuing the new guidance.

"I'm surprised and excited that OSHA is stepping into this," Thompson told CIDRAP News, adding that speaking at business conferences puts him in close touch with the concerns business executives have about workplace safety in the event of a pandemic. "The guide is very apropos to what businesses are looking for," he said.

"The more information we have and the more planning we can do, the better off we'll be," Thompson said. "This is a good step forward."

See also:

Feb 6 OHSA press release

OSHA pandemic influenza guidance
http://www.osha.gov/Publications/influenza_pandemic.html

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