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Lessons in hygiene

11 September 2014

As the winter flu season approaches, attention often turns to how best to prevent the spread of illness in the workplace.

The business case for doing so is well understood; a report conducted by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) identified that by investing in workplace hygiene, it is within employers’ power to reduce the £100 billion a year that sickness among working age people currently costs Britain by 13%, and in turn save the country £13.7 billion. Simple measures such as regular deep cleaning and the promotion of good hand hygiene can maximise the chances of keeping both staff healthy and reduce levels of sickness absence, as Luke Rutterford and Dr Peter Barratt explain in their article Getting your premises ready for winter. 

While infection control is a topic HSM covers regularly in the autumn, this year the focus has been sharpened by the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Deaths from the disease have now exceeded 2000 and The World Health Organisation (WHO) is warning that thousands more may die in the coming weeks, particularly in Liberia where it says: "Transmission of the Ebola virus is already intense and the number of new cases is increasing exponentially."

The NHS advises on its website (www.nhs.uk) that the virus currently poses no direct threat to people in the UK. It is generally spread through blood and bodily fluids rather than through routine social contact such as shaking hands and it is not airborne, so it is not as infectious as diseases such as the flu. However the virus can survive for several days outside the body, including on the skin of an infected person, which suggests why the WHO believes taxis are "a hot source of potential virus transmission" in Liberia because they are not disinfected.

Educating people on the importance of effective hygiene is therefore clearly an essential tool in the fight against the spread of Ebola in West Africa but there are also important lessons to be learned for the UK. At present business attitudes to infection control in the workplace vary enormously from the extremely vigilant who follow the kinds of measures recommended in Rutterford and Barratt's piece, to those who do the bare minimum. 

Writing in HSM's sister magazine Cleaning Matters in light of the Ebola outbreak, director of EMEA Services Keith Baker for The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association (ISSA) urges: "ISSA has long held the view that there is room for improvement in the way and the frequency with which many facilities are cleaned in order to adequately reduce any risks to the public’s health. However, as no industry standard exists, facilities need to decide on an individual basis – based on factors such as number of occupants, amount of traffic, surfaces, age of the building, geography and budget – the frequency with which they are cleaned." 

Baker places the responsibility for raising hygiene standards at the door of the cleaning industry, who he says should promote better infection control procedures and support businesses in implementing them, but UK Plc must also play its part by being receptive to this message. As Ian Samson explains in this month's Insight article Are we ready for a pandemic? in which he considers whether the UK is prepared should a disease such as Ebola gain a foothold on our shores: "The outbreak is a timely reminder that with globalisation diseases that once took months or years to spread widely can now be transmitted globally in the space of a few hours." So it's never too early to be prepared.