Terry McDonald: Site Safety

In light of the swine flu pandemic, how do we protect ourselves from contamination in the workplace, and also while traveling on work-related projects?

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The recent H1N1 swine influenza outbreak, which was eventually classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, made me think about a number of issues communicable diseases present in the industrial workplace, and also to those of us who travel a great deal in our jobs. On one hand, you want to protect yourself so that you don’t get sick, but on the other you can’t just put your life and work on hold when you’re faced with something like this. As always, using a little common sense is generally the best approach.

When considering spreading germs on the shop floor, the good news is that machine operators and those handling other individual tasks are often confined to a particular place for periods of time and usually work alone. But people who work together generally meet to exchange news first thing in the morning, and maybe even gather together for lunch. While you certainly don’t want to discourage social interaction, it’s probably a good idea to remind your co-workers of things they need to do to protect themselves when the flu virus—or anything that can be spread between people—is making its rounds. Remind them not to stand too closely together while speaking, and maybe even to avoid physical contact. Maybe they could even use their cell phones to communicate, when they can do so safely. I think there’s a way to do this without appearing rude, and certainly people understand what’s going on during such times. The most important thing to remember, however, is the importance of washing your hands often, and well. Use hot water and plenty of soap, and we employers might want to think about placing hand-sanitizer stations around the building at places where people tend to enter and exit, or to congregate. Maybe workers should even consider wearing face masks when they’re involved in close work with others, just to be on the safe side. The most important thing, though, is to make sure that nobody feels like they will be penalized for staying home if they’re feeling sick. Just think what would happen if your highly-skilled workforce all became ill at once, what would you do? That’s why it’s a good idea to make clear that when an employee is feeling sick they should stay home, no penalties and no questions asked, and this should go for those working on the shop floor as well as everyone in the office.

While you can use fairly simple tactics to limit exposure in the workplace, what about those of us who travel a great deal in our jobs? I don’t know about you, but whenever I go to the airport and board a flight, I can’t help thinking about all the different people I’m coming into contact with—I don’t know who they are, where they’ve been, or what they’ve been exposed to along the way. It’s enough to make you want to stay home, but very few of us have that option. We’ve got to meet with potential customers, take care of existing clients, and attend tradeshows that pertain to our industry. Just as it is in the workplace, the smartest thing to do in these situations is to keep your distance from other people whenever possible, to wash your hands frequently—and even keep a small, three-ounce container of hand sanitizer in your pocket—and maybe even go so far as to wear a small surgical mask when you’re forced into close contact with strangers. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what’s happening whenever you fly. Some people even dose up on vitamin C before they’ll be using public transportation such as planes, trains, buses, and especially taxicabs. Like I’ve said, you don’t want to be a hypochondriac, or paranoid, but when it makes sense to take actions like these in order to avoid contracting the flu or another harmful virus, then you should do so. Remember that these germs can exist on surfaces for a period of time after an infected person has touched them, so try to keep your hands to yourself when you can, and sanitize them as soon as possible after you’ve made contact with handrails, seating, doorknobs, and countertops, etc.
Maybe we can’t just suspend all our activities when these outbreaks occur, but we can be smart about how we approach situations like these for the well-being of our employees, and for our own safety as well. 

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is partner and manager of Repair Parts, Inc., and a current member and past–chairman of the American National Standards Institute B11.11 Subcommittee on Safety Requirements for Construction, Care, and Use of Gear Cutting Equipment. McDonald writes this monthly column specifically for Gear Solutions magazine, and he can be reached at (815) 968–4499 or rpi@repair–parts–inc.com. The company's Web site is [www.repair–parts–inc.com].