On February 6, 2007, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic. The document, which was developed in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), provides general guidance for all types of workplaces, describes the differences between seasonal, avian and pandemic influenza, and presents information on the nature of a potential pandemic, how the virus is likely to spread and how exposure is likely to occur. The guidance is advisory and informational. It does not alter compliance responsibilities.
To help employers determine appropriate workplace practices and precautions, the guidance divides workplaces and work operations into four risk zones, according to the likelihood of employees' occupational exposure to pandemic influenza as follows:
- Very high exposure risk—occupations with high potential exposure to high concentrations of known or suspected sources of pandemic influenza during specific medical or laboratory procedures, for example, health care employees performing aerosol-generating procedures on known or suspected pandemic patients;
- High exposure risk—occupations with high potential for exposure to known or suspected sources of pandemic influenza virus, for example, health care support staff exposed to known or suspected pandemic patients;
- Medium exposure risk—occupations that require frequent, close contact (within 6 feet) exposures to known or suspected sources of pandemic influenza virus such as coworkers and the general public;
- Lower exposure risk (caution)—occupations that do not require contact with people known to be infected with the pandemic virus, or frequent close contact (within 6 feet) with the public.
Recommendations for employee protection are presented for each of the four levels of anticipated risk and include engineering controls, work practices and use of personal protective equipment such as respirators and surgical masks. The guidance explains differences between surgical masks and respirators and describes different types of respirators.
The OSHA/HHS guidance also provides helpful information to develop a disaster plan and deal with a depleted workforce during a pandemic, noting that a pandemic could affect as many as 40% of the workforce during periods of peak influenza illness. In addition, the guidance includes steps employers can take to reduce the risk of exposure to pandemic influenza in their workplace, links to Web sites with additional information and a list of technical articles and resources, including a history on flu pandemics, symptoms and outcomes of various strains of the influenza, and details on the transmission of the virus.
It is important to note that workplace safety and health guidance may evolve and change over time as new information becomes available. For instance, the characteristics of the specific strain of influenza virus ultimately responsible for the pandemic may affect the way in which the disease is spread and therefore additional guidance would be tailored to that information. Up-to-date information and guidance is available to employers, employees and the general public through www.pandemicflu.gov, the federal government's Web site for information regarding pandemic flu. In addition, AHCA provides up-to-date information and guidance to its membership.
The HHS/OSHA guidance is available on OSHA’s Web site at http://www.osha.gov/Publications/influenza_pandemic.html.