Preventing Infectious Diseases in the Workplace

Infectious diseases are caused by certain bacteria, viruses, or fungi. People, animals, or the environment can spread infectious diseases. Infectious diseases range from very mild to life threatening.

Reducing the risk of infectious diseases spreading in the workplace protects the health of workers. Additionally, reducing transmission in the workplace reduces absenteeism, reduces scheduling and coverage issues, and improves productivity.

Overview

How Infectious Diseases Spread

Infectious diseases can spread in the workplace by:

  • Breathing in small particles in the air breathed out by a sick person or animal.
  • Breathing in small particles in the air from water, soil, or other environmental substances.
  • Droplets from a person’s cough or sneeze landing on another’s eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Touching contaminated surfaces (like door handles or shared items like phones).
    • The greatest risk is if the person touches their eyes, nose, or mouth, or eats food, after touching contaminated surfaces or items.
  • Contact with blood or other potentially infectious materials with eyes, nose, mouth, or non-intact skin.
  • Bites from infectious fleas, ticks, or mosquitos.

Controlling the Spread of Infectious Diseases in Workplaces

You can promote basic infection prevention practices in the workplace by:

  • Communicating infectious disease hazards, incidence, and workplace controls and policies including:
    • Notifying employees if they have a known exposure to an infectious disease.
    • Any needed follow-up after an exposure.
  • Encouraging employee hand washing, particularly before eating, after using the restroom, after removing gloves, and after contact with substances from a person or animal.
    • Provide handwashing facilities and encourage frequent hand washing with soap or hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol (ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol).
  • Encouraging respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette when coughing and sneezing, which means sneezing and coughing into a tissue, cloth, or into your arm and washing or sanitizing hands immediately after. If frequently coughing or sneezing, wearing a well-fitting face mask may be more convenient and effective than using a tissue.
  • Allowing workers to use PPE, such as gloves and masks, when not otherwise required and the PPE does not introduce a safety hazard.
  • Controlling pests in the workplace, including rodents, birds, and insects.
  • Enhancing ventilation. Check to make sure your system is in good condition and is providing as much fresh or filtered air supply as feasible. Filtered air is preferable when outdoor air quality is poor, for example, from wildfire smoke. Consult with your maintenance staff or service provider to ensure the system is running safely within its design specifications.
  • Implementing processes to encourage sick people to stay away from the workplace, when possible. Encourage employees to stay home if they have any of the following, if suspected to be related to an infectious disease and not explained by another cause, such as an existing health condition:
    • Diarrhea (3 or more times a day)
    • Vomiting (3 or more times a day)
    • Cough, especially if lasting 3 weeks or longer or coughing up blood
    • Sore throat
    • Fever or chills
    • Rash or oozing sores

If a worker comes to work with symptoms, the employer may address the situation but must respect the worker’s rights to privacy.

    • Washington provides protections for workers using sick leave. An employer cannot:
      • Discipline an employee for using sick leave.
      • Count the use of sick leave for future disciplinary action against the employee.
      • In any way retaliate against an employee for the lawful use of sick leave.
  • Facilitating remote or telework, when possible.
  • Having a written infection prevention plan including:
    • Policies for infection prevention including how to prevent, report, and respond to incidents.
    • A process for identifying employee illness such as employee screening or employee illness reporting policy.
    • Any required and recommended vaccinations.
    • Procedures for disinfecting commonly used workplace surfaces and shared equipment.
    • Providing an absence management program that includes non-punitive employee sick leave, stay-at-home, and return-to-work policies. Plan for extra staff in the workplace or on-call during winter respiratory infection season to allow for potential absences.
    • Any other infection prevention controls the workplace has in place, for example, hand hygiene education, respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette education, policies to allow telework, etc.
    • Employee training and education on your infectious disease policies. Training should include why infection prevention is important.


Assessing for Infectious Disease Hazards in the Workplace

Job duties in some workplaces have a higher risk for infectious diseases. A hazard assessment helps determine if employees could be exposed to an infectious disease hazard. Once these hazards are identified, choose protective measures to keep employees safe while doing these job duties.

Infectious Disease Job Hazard Assessment

A key aspect of an infectious disease job hazard assessment is looking for processes and job tasks that could expose the worker to an infectious disease such as:

  • Being in close contact with a person or animal known or suspected to have an infectious disease.
  • Coming in direct contact with potentially infectious body substances from a person or animal or items contaminated with potentially infectious body substances.
  • Doing site restoration where there are known environmental infectious agents, such as Aspergillus, Legionella, and Coccidioides (cause of Valley Fever).
  • Handling used needles and other sharps.
  • Working in areas with likely exposure to fleas, ticks, and mosquitos.

Infectious Disease Exposure Control Plan

Develop and implement an infectious disease exposure control plan based on the job hazard assessment. Include the types of workplace control methods that will be used to lower the risk of the infectious disease hazards identified.

Need help? L&I has safety and health consultants who can assist with setting up an infectious disease prevention program in your workplace.

Requirements & Policies

Several L&I rules apply to infectious disease hazards in the workplace. These rules require employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace, develop an accident prevention program based on hazards identified in the workplace, and implement controls to decrease hazards.

Rules

Regulations Related to Sick Leave

Training & Resources

Cleaning and Disinfection:

General Infection Prevention in Workplaces

Hand Hygiene

Infectious Disease from Animals

Laboratory

Personal Protective Equipment and Source Control Masking:

Respiratory Illness

Sharps Safety

Specific Infectious Disease Hazards

Ventilation