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Flu on your job site: How to deal with sick employees

Most of us aren't government workers with "guaranteed" sick days, but we still need to be sensible about illness on the job


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November 2, 2016 by John Bleasby

Flu season is coming. Some of your workers will get the flu shot, others will refuse, and some will forget. If a bug hits your job site, what do you as the employer do about it? Can you send them home? Can you force them to stay home? The answer is not as straightforward as one might think.

1. Workers’ rights. Employers’ obligations
From a worksite safety standpoint, there is little argument. Most provincial health and safety acts stipulate that if the safe operation of machinery is in question, an employer needs to prevent the worker from harming themselves and harming others. For example, Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act tells employers that they have an overall duty “to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker” (s. 25(2)(h)). This not only means ‘protection’ in all operational respects, but also that workers should be prevented from operating machinery or working at heights if they are sick.

The illness situation can manifest itself in two ways. Sometimes it might require pulling a worker off the job, sending them home, and telling them to stay there until better. Or, a worker might refuse to do an assigned task because they are “coming down with something.” Either way, employers are obliged to act in the best interests of both their infected and healthy workers.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour (and this is typical of labour ministries across the country) reminds employers that workers have the right to a safe environment and specifically mentions the flu in a policy statement posted in 2014 emphasizing an employee’s “right to know” and “right to participate.”

Flu germs are easy to spread either through the air or by direct/indirect contact

Flu germs are easy to spread either through the air or by direct/indirect contact

2. Controlling flu contagion. New science and new strategies
While provincial Health and Safety Acts take a traditional approach to illnesses like the flu, there is new scientific evidence that focusses on the issue of contagion containment specifically.  Sending a sick worker home might seem like the sensible thing to do to stop the flu from spreading around your site. However,  a paper written by Samuel V. Scarpino, Antoine Allard and Laurent Hébert-Dufresne published in Nature Physics in August 2016 points to “human exchange” models indicating that removing sick workers from a site and replacing them with healthy workers can actually spread the illness faster! In a practical sense what this suggests is that employers should encourage sick workers to simply stay at home and not come to work at all instead of being sent home later.

A mobile sink might be the answer to keep flu germs from spreading this fall and winter.

A mobile sink might be the answer to keep flu germs from spreading this fall and winter.

3. Preventative precautions include washing hands
Flu spreads quickly through human contact. Not only does that mean workers in close proximity, like two or three person teams of framers and dry-wallers are vulnerable, but also means that tools handled by a sick worker could in fact infect a healthy worker. Washing hands with disinfectants available on site in dispensers is one step an employer could take.

Wish your co-workers well, but encourage them to stay home if sick

Wish your co-workers well, but encourage them to stay home if sick

4. Stamp out the stigma of being ill
Many hourly construction workers are reluctant to miss a day of work, particularly when it impacts their earnings. The stigma of not ‘toughing it out’ also plays a role. Help your team get over these concerns by impressing upon them the importance of being healthy, safe, and to not spreading the bugs around to others. Also strongly encourage them to take the time to get the flu shot. It’s easy and available.

Bottom line: A healthy work site is a productive, safe and profitable work site.

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2 Comments » for Flu on your job site: How to deal with sick employees
  1. Marten says:

    Not sure about the flu shot here. There are some concerns about it and the effectiveness of it. I will not get one, believing that the body if healthy will fight the flu on its own. Different doctors will debate this forever. About touching tools and stuff, I always laugh at this. Think about the hand rails in public buildings, how about the key pad for the VISA machines at every store. How abut door knobs. The list goes on. Better of being healthy, eating right, staying active then hiding in a bubble filled world, in my opinion.

  2. wendy says:

    what if you have the flu and they wont let you call in sick