By JoAnn Greco
Each year, Canadian workers miss about 1.5 million workdays due to the flu, cumulatively costing about $1 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity reports the Canadian Healthcare Influenza Immunization Network. In any given month, one-third of Canadians have a sore throat, cold or the flu, according to a recent Queen's University study.
With the roughest part of the winter still ahead, it makes good business sense to help your employees take care of themselves. For Jane Snyder, a registered nutritionist who also co-owns Snyder Construction, a commercial, institutional, industrial and heritage restoration company in Ashburn, Ont., that means encouraging her 15 employees to stay hydrated. "They move around and sweat in this industry so they get easily dehydrated," Snyder says, "and that weakens your immunity." Compared to employees who are less active, Snyder says her construction workers need to continually drink water and herbal teas to flush out impurities.
In the company's newsletter and during her "Healthy Hardhat" seminars for the Ontario General Contractors Association, Snyder emphasizes other ways to build immunity through diet, including increasing intake of garlic and onions as soon as the weather changes. "Whole foods are the best to eat," she says. "Not processed or refined." Since refined sugars found in snacks like candy bars can suppress immune system functions, she suggests that employers stock vending machines and kitchens with naturally sweet fruit and dark chocolate.
Snyder also looks beyond the workplace by encouraging employees and their families to eat better at home, so everyone can stay clear-eyed and dry-nosed during the cold and flu season. Zinc-rich foods like lean meats, oysters, garbanzo beans, and yogurt boost immunity and if there's ever a time to take vitamins, this is it, Snyder says. "At the very least," she adds, "I recommend a multi-vitamin and a dose of at least 2,000 milligrams of Vitamin C," she says.
Sanitation is the other side of the preventive coin, according to Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist for the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, Ont. "Washing your hands with soap on a regular basis —particularly before eating and anytime before touching your mouth, nose or eyes — remains the best advice," she says. "This seems to be especially important for people in the building trades who may be moving from place to place and handling garbage and other waste." Lathering up for a good twenty seconds should do the trick, she says, suggesting that both men and women pay close attention to the areas under their finger nails.
Construction workers should also be mindful of a common occupational hazard — nicks and scrapes — and wear adhesive bandages or gloves to protect themselves from infections, Chappel adds. And since germs can linger for up to two days, Chappel says workers may wish to wipe down tools, steering wheels, door handles and other surfaces. Besides cleaning equipment, Chappel also stresses the importance of hand washing. "Hand sanitizer is fine on the fly," she says, "but regular soap is very effective."
Turning such good behaviors into habits is key and there are ways for workplaces to make that easier. At the beginning of cold season, the CCOHS office, drops a bag with a pack of tissues, a few cough drops, a miniature bottle of hand sanitizer, an envelope of instant soup and a list of tips for staying healthy at every desk.
Businesses can order materials, such as "Wash Your Hands" peel-off labels in neon green to really make the message stick, and posters and videos that illustrate proper hand washing techniques, from the Centre's website.
By promoting good hygiene and healthy eating to employees, it also helps business owners keep their companies running during the cold and flu season. "It's true that if we have don't have workers, we have don't have a company," Snyder says. "A healthy workplace is really about the employees. It's about their quality of life on and off the job."