Keeping your worksite safe this flu season

04 Aug 2022

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Health experts across New Zealand are warning Kiwis to prepare for what could be a severe flu season this year. 

Many believe the country has a far lower natural immunity because of the minimal virus exposure, partly caused by New Zealand’s border restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The national lockdown in 2020 essentially stamped out what was already circulating in New Zealand, with flu rates plummeting 99 per cent that year, basically ridding the country of the influenza virus.

Now with the relaxing restrictions and New Zealand reopening to the world, health experts are concerned that two years of living in a flu-free environment may have left our immunity levels vulnerable to the virus.

And there is reason to be concerned - the flu usually infects around one in four Kiwis annually, mainly between May and October.

The influenza virus infects your nose, throat and lungs. It usually is worse than a cold and spreads quickly between people through touch and the air. Symptoms of influenza come on suddenly and can include fever, chills, muscle aches, a runny nose, cough and an upset stomach.

The prospect of a severe flu season, adding to a construction industry already hampered by labour and supply shortages, stresses how it is more important than ever to safeguard yourself and others on site.  

Site Safe training advisor Kyle O’Keefe said the best way those on-site can prepare for a severe flu season is to get vaccinated and stay fit and active.

“On average, those [who] get the flu are sick for five to 10 days, which could be two weeks off work. Often people report feeling fatigued for a few weeks after that, but it may take weeks to start feeling better if you’re unvaccinated and out of shape.”

Kyle said New Zealand’s isolation from the rest of the world will likely mean more people will get sick due to the lack of exposure.

Promoting wellness, getting immunised and encouraging the workforce to “get off the couch and away from screens” while also encouraging them to stay away from work when they’re symptomatic was a “huge step in the right direction” for mitigating the risks of illnesses at work.   

“Those of us that are fit and healthy might not get the flu too bad, but those that are immune-compromised or live with lung diseases like emphysema or have heart conditions can get very sick and take a long time to recover or even die.”

Southern Cross Health Insurance chief medical officer, Dr Stephen Child, said getting as many New Zealanders as possible vaccinated against influenza will be critical this season.

That’s why the health insurer offers its members a free flu jab.

“New Zealand’s strict border controls for managing the spread of Covid-19 mean the influenza virus has largely been absent for a significant period of time, which creates an immunity gap. The most effective tool we have for closing this gap is the influenza vaccine.”

Dr Child said last year’s Respiratory Syncytial Virus outbreak following the short opening of the border between New Zealand and Australia shows the pressure such immunity gaps can place on the health system.

He said it also puts vulnerable people such as babies, children and the elderly at high risk of becoming very unwell.

Those developing vaccines consider the different strains of influenza likely to be found in New Zealand when it comes to creating each year’s flu vaccine. This year’s vaccine includes strains circulating through the northern hemisphere’s flu season.

Most people can receive the flu vaccine, but they should postpone their appointment if they feel unwell, Southern Cross Health said.

It said that people who have had previous allergic reactions to vaccines should consult their GP before receiving a jab.

Meanwhile, the industry has proved it could adjust and prepare for Covid-19 with many forming controls and protocols to ensure all those on-site could continue to work safely.

In collaboration with an industry working group of health and safety experts, Site Safe formed a Covid-19 protocols document on behalf of the industry.

This guide was recently updated to reflect the realities of managing Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses on-site. It aligns with New Zealand moving down the traffic light settings and towards a new normal of living with Covid-19.

The construction guideline offers additional controls which can be used on-site at any level to minimise the spread of all respiratory illnesses.

It highlights the importance of monitoring your symptoms and staying home when sick to help keep your workforce healthy.

It also suggests that creating a greater focus on cleaning and hygiene processes and implementing business continuity planning could help limit the impact of respiratory illness on broader operations.

You can find the complete industry protocols guide on the Site Safe website under guides and resources.