Many people walk around with latent tuberculosis (TB) for years without knowing it after having picked up the infection in the workplace. Here’s how to prevent it from developing into active TB in yourself and others…
Who is at risk?
South Africa has the third highest incidence of TB in the world, surpassed only by that of China and India. It is highly prevalent in certain sectors of the workplace. The risk of occupational or workplace-acquired TB is substantially higher for people such as healthcare workers, those working with animals, laboratory technicians who handle samples of tuberculosis and those working in inadequately ventilated, closed, stuffy and cramped spaces in mines, prisons, hostels, centres for the homeless or refugees, orphanages and even old-age homes. Fortunately, your average, modern, air-conditioned office is a relatively safe place to work in.
How can TB infection be controlled in the workplace?
TB is preventable, controllable and, in most cases, treatable. In South Africa, the health and safety of all employees at work is covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, that stipulates that employers are obliged to provide, as far as is reasonably practical, a safe workplace without risk to the health of its employees.
In the case of TB, this can be achieved by the following:
- Early diagnosis and treatment of high risk employees. They include those with HIV/Aids and those already infected with active TB disease. Those with active TB need to be removed from the workplace where they can infect others until such time (usually after 2 to 4 weeks of treatment) that they are no longer infectious.
- Encouraging the rest of the workers to be tested for TB; identifying and treating those with latent TB will help prevent the development and spread of active TB.
- Providing environmentally friendly and properly ventilated work places with lots of fresh air and, where possible, exposure to natural sunlight, a proven immune booster. In healthcare facilities, control measures for TB may include engineering controls such as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) to remove airborne infectious agents from the air, administrative controls and the use of personal protective equipment. Where these are not available or affordable, natural ventilation and exposure to sunlight are still the best control measures to be had.
What can you do to make your workplace safe?
- Your own health status is most important to prevent infection. A strong and healthy body and immune system is your best protection. Watching your diet, getting enough exercise and managing your stress levels are important. Remember, TB is an opportunistic disease just waiting to attack a weakened, stressed-out body.
- Speak to your doctor about being vaccinated against TB. In South Africa, most babies are routinely vaccinated with the BCG vaccine and, although it does not offer 100% protection against TB infection, it does help reduce the chance of TB spreading from the lungs to the brain and the rest of the body. People under 35 who are regularly exposed to TB-infected persons may want to investigate this option.
- Do consider having a flu shot and taking extra vitamins and minerals to prevent infections during the winter months. Encourage those who are sick (with your boss’s permission) to rather stay at home instead of infecting the whole office and weakening everybody’s immune systems.
- Insisting on an adequately ventilated office space or making use of natural air and sunlight are other measures to prevent infection.
- Being aware of the symptoms of acute TB (weight loss, lethargy, loss of appetite, a persistent cough, chest pains and night sweats) in yourself and others will afford you the opportunity to either have your own symptoms checked out or encouraging a colleague to do so.
- Personal hygiene is very important with any infectious disease. Washing your hands regularly and using a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze or (heaven forbid) spit and then disposing of the tissues in a sealed plastic bag are measures that should be encouraged. Don’t be shy to wipe down keyboard keys and other areas of your office regularly and do dodge those germs being sprayed all over the place when others are sneezing and coughing around you.
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Miller, SL et.al. 2002. Efficacy of ultraviolet irradiation in controlling the spread of tuberculosis. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/nas/RDRP/appendices/chapter6/a6-23.pdf
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