Communicable Illness: A Growing Risk to America’s Workforce

Communicable illness, infectious disease, is a growing risk to all Americans, not just in our workforce.  This article, however, will focus on reducing the risk that a communicable illness poses to your workforce.  Our history shows us that we can anticipate up to 40% of our workforce to be unavailable during a communicable illness outbreak.  If this would be harmful to your business, you can either hope it doesn’t happen, or prepare in advance for how you’ll manage your business without 40% of your workforce.

The incidence of death due to communicable illness declined dramatically in the United States from 1900 to around 1980 from 800 deaths per 100,000 people to 46 deaths per 100,000 people.  This decline was largely due to better hygiene and the development and improvement of antibiotics.  However, since 1980 the incidence of death due to communicable illness has risen to 63 deaths per 100,000 people.  Just for the sake of comparisons, heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US, causes 167 deaths per 100,000 people, and cancer, the second leading cause of death, causes 161 deaths per 100,000 people.

Of these 63 deaths per 100,000 people, caused by communicable illness, 15 deaths are due to influenza and pneumonia, both of which have a vaccine available.  Influenza also leads to about 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths in the US annually while pneumonia leads to about 60,000 deaths annually.  Because the influenza vaccine is usually so effective at reducing the virus spread, most hospitals are now requiring a flu vaccine for all employees annually.

The single best thing everyone can do to reduce communicable illness is better hand washing.  An effective hand wash requires:

  • Removal of rings, watches, and bracelets.
  • Turn on hot water (comfortably hot).
  • Wet hands and wrists and apply soap.
  • Work up lather rubbing hands together for 20 seconds paying particular attention to nails, cuticle areas, and between fingers.  This is long enough to sing happy birthday twice.
  • Rinse hands and avoid touching faucet or sink.
  • Dry hands with paper towel and turn off faucet with the paper towel.

Alcohol based hand sanitizers are also an effective hand cleanser if your hands aren’t visibly soiled.  These dispensers can be placed throughout any workplace.

This also might be a good reason for adopting a work from home policy, if that would be applicable for your worksite.  However, if you expect people to be productive, this must be practiced first to ensure all necessary applications are available to your workforce and are functioning efficiently.

Because of the misuse of antibiotics in our country, the incidence of resistant bacteria is ever increasing.  Bacteria that develop resistance to the antibiotics we use are increasing difficult to treat.  This includes some bacteria present in our country now that can’t be treated with any antibiotic in our arsenal.  It is unlikely that the rate of communicable illness will go down.  If you haven’t been affected by this problem yet, it is likely that someday you will.  As my eighth-grade history teacher used to say, “Preparation is the key success.”  Avoiding preparation will not make this problem disappear. 

For more information on this topic or any other business continuity preparedness questions I can be reached at 410-303-0635 or  Please join me in two weeks for my next topic on developing and executing an effective emergency response plan.  In school, we were required to practice an emergency evacuation from the school, a fire drill.  How many of you have an emergency response plan for your business?  Would you be able to guarantee that all people in your building can get out safely and be accounted for if you were required to evacuate your building for any number of emergency situations.  If you aren’t certain, you owe it to yourself and your employees to do some preplanning.