The risk of infectious diseases in the workplace poses a serious problem to workers. While infectious diseases currently effect a relatively low number of workers, the potential exists for these diseases to become one of the major causes of illness within workplaces. The rapid spread of an infectious disease may be attributed to the fact that some workers are of the opinion that they are not going to spread their germs if ill; instead they are focused on all the work that they have to do. Therefore, attitudes and perceptions play a crucial role in the spread of infectious diseases within the workplace.

What is an Infectious Disease?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), infectious diseases, also known as communicable diseases, are caused by pathogenic microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi. The diseases can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another.

Types of Infectious Diseases

Bloodborne Diseases

Bloodborne diseases are transmitted by bloodborne pathogens through contact with infected blood or certain body fluids. The three bloodborne diseases which pose the greatest risk to workers are HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. Exposure to infected blood or bodily fluids can occur most commonly through needle sticks or blood splashes. Hence, workers in healthcare settings are most at risk. To prevent exposure to bloodborne diseases, workers should treat all blood and bodily fluids as infectious.

Contact Diseases

Contact diseases are transmitted through either direct or indirect contact with bacteria or viruses. Direct contact involves sexual transmission, while indirect contact involves touching an object contaminated by an infected person (e.g., telephone or a door knob). Disease transmission also occurs via contaminated food and/or water. Norovirus, also known as viral gastroenteritis is the most common. To prevent the risk of exposure to contact diseases, workers should follow proper hand washing procedures, as hand washing is the simplest and most effective method of controlling the spread of infectious diseases.

Airborne Diseases

Airborne diseases are spread through the air. Thus, a worker can contract an airborne disease by breathing in air contaminated with bacteria or viruses. The most common airborne diseases that present a risk to workers are tuberculosis, measles, chicken pox and influenza. Airborne diseases can occur anywhere in the population; therefore, workers across all sectors of industries can be at risk. Preventing airborne infectious diseases can best be done by combining engineering controls, administrative controls and the use of personal protective equipment. These include implementing ventilation systems, as well as encouraging workers to get vaccinated.

Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonotic diseases are caused by infectious agents, zoonoses, which are transmitted between animals and humans either directly via contact with skin, through contact with saliva, via the air or through insect bites. Individuals like veterinarians, farmers and butchers have a higher risk of acquiring a zoonotic disease. The most common include Hantavirus and rabies. To prevent the transmission of zoonotic diseases, workers should get vaccinated, be cautious when handling aggressive animals, and wash hands regularly.

How Can the Risk of Infectious Diseases Be Managed in the Workplace?

The issue of managing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases in a workplace setting can be very complex. This is due to the fact tat the hazards associated with the disease, as well as the magnitude of the exposure, may vary from workplace to workplace. The following course of actions should be considered to ensure the safety of workers in relation to the spread of infectious diseases.

1. Conduct Hazard Identification

All job activities and work environments where workers may be exposed to infectious diseases should be identified and documented. Special attention should be paid to workers who are at a higher risk of exposure, such as health care workers, laboratory workers and fire fighters. Additionally, risk identification and assessment begins with understanding the nature of the infectious disease and how it is transmitted.

2. Implement Control Measures

Control measures should be put in place to protect high-risk workers. Control measures can be engineering controls, administrative controls and/or the use of personal protective equipment. Engineering controls reduce risk by mechanical means. These include barriers and room ventilation. Administrative controls involve changes to work processes and procedures to reduce exposure. These include hand washing, encouraging sick workers to remain at home, educating and training workers on safe work processes and procedures in relation to infectious diseases, and encouraging all workers to get vaccinated.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is considered the last line of defence and should only be used either when other controls are not practicable or in addition to other controls. To learn more about selecting the right PPE, check out 6 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Guidelines Every Employee Should Know.

3. Ensure Privacy

Confidential records of infectious diseases should be kept in the medical files of the effected workers.

4. Report and Investigate

All incidents involving infectious diseases must be properly investigated and documented. Additionally, the appropriate corrective actions must be developed and implemented. Furthermore, if a worker is suffering from an infectious disease, it must be reported to the relevant authorities as soon as possible. An example would be reporting a case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

What Can Workers Do to Protect Themselves?

It is the responsibility of workers to help reduce their risk of exposure to infectious diseases. Therefore, workers must:

  • Attend all education and training sessions
  • Follow safe work procedures (especially for hand washing)
  • Wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Seek immediate medical attention after an occupational exposure
  • Report exposure incidents to their supervisors or managers
  • Keep a record of their personal vaccinations
  • Ensure that their vaccinations are up-to-date