Workzone: Don't punch in influenza

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For the sake of argument, let's just say that your co-worker or your boss is really as indispensable to the well-being of the company as he seems to believe. We can even concede that the doors of (name here) Inc. open and close when his shadow hits them.

That is still no reason to go to work with influenza.

Especially not in this age when -- other than surgeons, plumbers and people with hands-on jobs like those -- many can telecommute.

Jim Lando, acting chief of the Office of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Allegheny County Health Department, said this year the flu is hitting hard with 340 confirmed cases in the county so far. He can't say if the incidents have peaked yet, because to determine that peak there has to be a valley, and there is no sign of that yet.

To add to the misery, there have also been huge outbreaks of norovirus, which is known more descriptively throughout the United Kingdom as "the winter vomiting bug."

Norovirus, Dr. Lando said, is highly contagious.

Whether it comes to the vomiting bug, the flu or even a bad cold, Dr. Lando said, "In general, we tell people [that] if they're sick, stay home."

He admits sometimes it is not that easy. Most companies grant a limited number of sick days, if any, and many people husband their days to use when their children are sick or when their elderly parents need care or even for mental health days. And many of those who aren't granted paid sick days literally cannot afford to get sick.

There are also those who don't want to take days off in an economy that is fairly shaky.

"Most people think they are invaluable and worry if they are not invaluable, they might lose their jobs," Dr. Lando said.

Despite intentions, some of the illnesses going around this year can get severe enough to make it literally impossible to work. The high fevers, body aches and lethargy that accompany the flu, and the signature vomiting and diarrhea of the norovirus make working out of the question.

Still, there are people who have more mild versions, or force themselves to go to work, who spread these plagues like rats during the Dark Ages.

Dr. Lando said the only disinfectant that can kill viruses lurking on a table or door handle is bleach, and even then it has to stand awhile to kill the virus.

The best plan, he said, is to stay home and, if there is work to be done, do it by telephone or computer. Meetings can be handled by conference calls or via chat software with a webcam, which can then include the view of a participant's flannel pajamas and plaid robe.

There are the strategies to keeping employees well, such as frequent hand washing, limiting those handshakes that are so common in the business world and keeping surfaces clean.

Travelers Insurance's risk control team advises businesses to "purchase cleaning supplies to make sure the office is sterile," a tall order for most businesses.

So instead of sterilizing the office and wearing surgical masks and gloves, the best thing anyone can do to slow the spread of these noncomputer viruses is to just stay home.


Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.


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