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Durham University

Human Resources & Organisational Development

Infections, Diseases and Biological Hazards Guide

Infectious diseases in the workplace

Micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi are everywhere and commonly do not cause infection (and can even be beneficial). However, some do cause infection resulting in symptoms of ill health.

Many diseases can spread before the individual shows any symptoms at all (during the infectious period), and some may require exclusion from the workplace, however this depends on the type of infection and the work carried out.

Staff and students can be exposed to infections in the workplace in two ways i.e. deliberately working with potentially infectious organisms or picking up infections from other staff and students (just as they might from their friends and family outside work).

How to avoid spreading cold and flu viruses

Colds and flu are caused by viruses and easily spread to other people.

Colds and flu viruses are spread by germs from coughs and sneezes, which can live on hands and surfaces for 24 hours.

If you have a cold you are infectious until all your symptoms have gone. This usually takes a week or 2.

Flu is very infectious and easily spread to other people. You're more likely to give it to others in the first 5 days.

To reduce the risk of spreading colds and flu:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible

Telling the difference between cold and flu

Cold and flu symptoms are similar, but flu tends to be more severe.

Flu

Cold

Appears quickly within a few hours

Appears gradually

Affects more than just your nose and throat

Affects mainly your nose and throat

Makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal

Makes you feel unwell, but you're OK to carry on as normal (for example, go to work)

How to prevent catching cold and flu viruses

A person with a virus can start spreading it from a few days before their symptoms begin until the symptoms have finished.

The best ways to avoid catching a virus are:

  • washing your hands with warm water and soap
  • not sharing towels or household items (like cups) with someone who has a cold
  • not touching your eyes or nose in case you have come into contact with the virus – it can infect the body this way
  • staying fit and healthy

The flu vaccine helps prevent flu but not other viruses, including colds. It will not stop all flu viruses and the level of protection may vary, so it's not a 100% guarantee that you'll be flu-free.

How to wash your hands correctly:

  • You should wash your hands for the amount of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice (around 20 seconds)
  • Wet your hands with water
  • Apply enough soap to cover your hands
  • Rub your hands together
  • Use 1 hand to rub the back of the other hand and clean in between the fingers. Do the same with the other hand
  • Rub your hands together and clean in between your fingers
  • Rub the back of your fingers against your palms
  • Rub your thumb using your other hand. Do the same with the other thumb
  • Rub the tips of your fingers on the palm of your other hand. Do the same with other hand
  • Rinse your hands with water
  • Dry your hands completely with a disposable towel
  • Use the disposable towel to turn off the tap
  • If you do not have immediate access to soap and water then use alcohol-based hand rub if available

When should you wash your hands?

  • after using the toilet
  • before and after handling raw foods like meat and vegetables
  • before eating or handling food
  • after blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing
  • before and after treating a cut or wound

Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection spread through inhaling tiny droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person. It mainly affects the lungs, but it can affect any part of the body, including the tummy (abdomen), glands, bones and nervous system.

How do you catch TB?

Although TB is spread in a similar way to a cold or flu, it is not as contagious.

You usually need close and prolonged (several hours) contact with someone who has TB to be at risk of being infected. TB is usually caught from someone who has TB of the lung when that person coughs or sneezes. There is no risk of catching TB by coming into contact with surfaces or other objects in the work or school environment.

Symptoms of TB

Typical symptoms of TB include:

  • a persistent cough that lasts more than 3 weeks and usually brings up phlegm, which may be bloody
  • weight loss
  • night sweats
  • high temperature
  • tiredness and fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • swellings in the neck

You should see a GP if you have a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks or you cough up blood.

Treating TB

TB is treatable and can be cured with a course of special antibiotics.

What if someone I know has TB?

When someone is diagnosed with TB, their treatment team will assess whether other people are at risk of infection.

This may include close contacts, such as people living with the person who has TB, as well as casual contacts, such as work colleagues and social contacts.

Anyone who's thought to be at risk will be asked to go for testing, and will be given advice and any necessary treatment after their results.

Vaccination for TB

The BCG vaccine protects against tuberculosis, however it is not given as part of the routine NHS vaccination schedule. It's given on the NHS only when a child or adult is thought to have an increased risk of coming into contact with TB.

Further information about TB is available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/675492/TB_leaflet.pdf or http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tuberculosis/

When deliberately working with potentially infectious organisms, and/or the work role is likely involve a higher risk of exposure (e.g. laboratory workers, nursery staff), the University has a legal duty under the Management at Work Regulations 1999 and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), which includes carrying out a risk assessment and implementing control measures to reduce the risk to health as far as reasonably practicable.

Although staff and students may well pick up infections from other individuals in the workplace (just as they might from their friends and family outside work) – these infections are not an organisations responsibility under health and safety law. This is because the infection is just as likely to be caught outside the workplace as in it. However, measures can be taken by managers and individuals to reduce the risk of infection, and action may be required to protect vulnerable individuals e.g. reduced immune system response, young children and during pregnancy.

Staff with impaired immunity

Some staff and students may have impaired immune defence mechanisms in their bodies (known as immuno-compromised) and hence will be more likely to acquire infections. Also, the consequence of infection in the immuno-compromised is likely to be significantly more serious than in those with a properly functioning immune system (known as immuno-competent).

Impaired immunity can be caused by certain treatments such as those for leukaemia or other cancers, like cytotoxic therapy and radiotherapy. Other treatments such as high doses of steroids may also have a similar effect. Individuals will have been fully informed by their doctor. There are also some rare diseases, which can reduce the ability of a person to fight off infection.

If a vulnerable individual is thought to have been exposed to a communicable disease in the workplace, they should seek further medical advice from their GP, midwife or specialist, as appropriate.

Pregnant staff

It should be noted that the greatest risk to pregnant women from such infections comes from their own household rather than the workplace. However, if a pregnant woman develops a rash, or is in direct contact with someone with an infectious disease, she should consult her doctor or midwife for advice.

Biological hazards in the workplace

If a work role carries an increased risk of biological hazards for staff with impaired immunity or women of childbearing age then this must be identified and recorded in a risk assessment and appropriate action taken. For further advice regarding risk assessment please contact your Health & Safety Business Partner.

Occupational Health Referral

Following the completion of a biological hazard risk assessment if additional advice is required regarding reasonable adjustments to work roles, or a staff member has concerns regarding their health, staff can be referred to the Occupational Heath Service by their line manager. Please see the following webpage for information on Occupational Health referrals https://www.dur.ac.uk/hr/occupationalhealth/managementreferrals/

Prompt exclusion may be required to prevent the spread of infection, however not all infectious diseases require exclusion from the workplace. Potential exposure to infectious disease is not normally a reason for medical exclusion.

Further information regarding infectious diseases, including the length of time a disease is contagious, can be found by searching the following NHS website:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/

Guidance on managing cases of infectious disease in childcare setting e.g. nursery is available via the below Health Protection website:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-protection-in-schools-and-other-childcare-facilities