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Infectious diseases in the workplace

By CCIWA Editor 

Employers should take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of any possible spread of infection with respect to infectious diseases.

It is important for employers in high risk industries to have written procedures in place that describe methods for controlling and limiting workplace exposures to bloodborne infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

Infectious diseases are usually spread in the following ways:

  • Airborne: through the air. (Tuberculosis)
  • Bloodborne: infected blood that comes into contact with another person’s blood or other body fluids containing blood, such as through a needlestick. (Hepatitis B or HIV)
  • Contact: touching or other direct contact with an open wound, bandage, soiled objects or infected surface. (Staphylococcus)
  • Faecal-oral: swallowing food or liquid that has been contaminated by human or animal waste. Putting your hands in your mouth after handling contaminated objects without first washing your hands can also transmit diseases. (Hepatitis A)
  • Foodborne: eating or drinking contaminated or spoiled food or liquids that contain bacteria or other infectious agents. (Salmonella)
  • Animal-borne: contact with animals or animal waste. (Rabies)
  • Vector-borne: diseases spread by insects. (Lyme’s disease)

Infectious disease assessment

Employers should identify infectious diseases, assess the risk of injury or harm, and then implement the most effective control measure to minimise the risk of contact.

Consider environmental factors

The chance of becoming infected with certain diseases is more likely in some facilities than others.

For example, the health care environment is potentially a greater risk as opposed to an office environment.

Exposure in high risk industries

While most occupational risk factors are still unlikely to result in transmission, any occupation which involves potential exposure to an infectious disease should be included in a risk assessment.

Exposure from contact with an infected employee

Employees have a responsibility under the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 to ensure their own safety and health at work and to avoid adversely affecting the safety and health of any person through any act or omission at work.

However, an employee is not obligated to notify the employer that they have an infectious disease unless it specifically impacts on the performance of their job. Many employees choose to voluntarily notify the employer.

On being notified or on suspicion that there is a risk of exposure to an infectious disease in the workplace, an employer should focus on providing adequate information, instruction and training to ensure the following for all staff.

  • Hygiene in the workplace is kept at adequate levels, this would include regularly cleaned amenities and personal hygiene.
  • Appropriately trained first aid officers who address every situation assuming risk, ie. always using latex gloves when administering treatment.
  • Good housekeeping and waste management procedures.

Many infectious diseases are not transmissible via casual contact. Each specific infectious disease should be addressed individually as they vary in transmission, virulence, infectivity and treatment. Contact CCI to help you assess and attend to the situation. In addition, you should contact a general practitioner to obtain specific advice on treatment of an exposure to an infectious disease.

Notification

Employers should inform their employees about potential exposure to infectious diseases in the workplace.

This includes knowing who to report the exposure to, what tests to take to find out if they have been infected, and what treatment is available.

In addition, you may need to notify WorkSafe Western Australia of the acquisition of an infectious disease by an employee during the course of their work.

Privacy

There are laws to protect the privacy rights of employees and patients with respect to medical information.

However, an employer can tell employees what precautions are needed to protect against infection.

Investigate disease outbreaks

Any disease outbreak within a workplace should be investigated. It is important to determine how a disease was contracted in order to prevent future outbreaks. Usually the West Australian Department of Health will investigate such outbreaks.

In addition, any occupational exposure should be investigated as part of the normal company incident/accident reporting process. This will assist in the determination of appropriate control measures.

For more information on investigating infectious disease outbreaks, check with the West Australian Department of Health on (08) 9222 4222.

Prevention

Preventing the spread of infectious diseases means blocking the chain of infection using the hierarchy or preferred order of controls. This is a process that should be conducted with specific reference to your organisational requirements. There are general control factors that can be examined.

Administrative controls

The way certain jobs are organised can be changed to reduce employees’ exposure to infectious diseases.

For example, limiting the number of employees who care for, or come into contact, with an infectious patient or inmate reduces the number of employees who are exposed.

Housekeeping

Good housekeeping practices include:

  • collecting and disposing of human and other waste;
  • immediately cleaning up and disinfecting blood and body fluids;
  • disposing of biological waste including disposable equipment, gloves, masks and garments in leak-proof, labelled containers;
  • laundering contaminated, re-useable uniforms and work clothes separately at work;
  • using adequate methods and products for general cleaning to prevent the growth of infectious diseases in the workplace such as sterilising equipment, and;
  • frequent and thorough hand washing to prevent the spread of disease by killing germs.

Vaccinations

Many infectious diseases are vaccine preventable and some can be treated successfully if addressed immediately.

Examples include:

  • Hepatitis B: employees in health care, mental health, corrections and other employees who may be exposed to blood or other materials that might be infectious.
  • Tetanus: employees who work in wastewater treatment, construction activities, and other jobs where there is a risk of cuts.
  • Rubella (German measles): health care, corrections and social service employees who have not had the disease. Female employees in their childbearing years should be vaccinated to protect themselves and to avoid the risk of birth defects.
  • Flu shots and vaccinations: for measles, chicken pox and other diseases.

If your workplace poses a risk of exposure to an infectious disease or if you suspect exposure, you should contact a general practitioner to determine what prevention and treatment options are available.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Always use personal protective equipment when there is a risk of exposure to an infectious disease. Appropriate PPE should be determined by completing a risk assessment but may include gloves, face shields, eye protection and protective clothing, such as aprons.

Contact CCIWA Health, Safety and Workers’ Compensation on (08) 9365 7415 or email osh@cciwa.com or visit the CCIWA website at cciwa.com for further information.

Employers should take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of any possible spread of infection with respect to infectious diseases.

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