Fighting the Superbug

MRSA is in the workplace, and it's not going away. Protect your workers now from this emerging threat.

It was bound to happen. Medical professionals warned about it more than 50 years ago when a surprisingly effective tool for fighting infections first entered into broad use in the 1950s. If we step back a bit more to 1939, when two European scientists used penicillin for the first time on a human patient, it becomes obvious why antibiotics have been so heavily prescribed to fight infections. That early success was the fuse that has ignited one of the biggest health challenges of our lifetime: MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus). It’s already making great strides into the general public and the workplace. Worker’s compensation claims are on the rise because of the severe and sometimes life-threatening infections that are associated with MRSA.

Five predominant events have led to the emergence of the superbug MRSA. First, bacteria know how to mutate, and they do it with fierce abandon. Next, antibiotics of all types, including penicillin and its successors, have been over-prescribed for decades. Third, people who have been prescribed antibiotics have tended to stop taking their prescriptions when symptoms subside, even though it has always been recommended that a person finishes the prescription in whole unless side effects occur. Fourth, anti-bacterial soaps have proliferated since their introduction in the 1990s. Like the antibiotics used in medicine, the overuse of antibacterial soaps and similar products, especially in healthy homes and work sites, can help bacteria grow resistant. Last, the overall trend in our society to skip showers after strenuous exercise or physical activity, and instead apply a sweet-smelling body spray, has created a breeding ground for aggressive bacteria such as MRSA. If they aren’t eliminated completely, the bacteria morph and mutate to come back stronger and more deadly than before. Sometimes there are other courses of action that don’t include antibiotics and can fight off minor infections. In those cases, prescribing antibiotics can be superfluous and detrimental in the long term.

Squeaky Clean is Good Enough
In the 1990s, we saw the introduction, and consequent flood, of antibacterial soaps and miscellaneous products. It seemed like every day there was a new antibacterial product on the market. The antibacterial movement reached its peak when antibacterial clothing and fabrics were introduced.

Antibacterial products aren’t bad in concept. What is bad is when these products are introduced into perfectly healthy environments. Antibacterial soaps can kill off good bacteria, too, so the use of them may do more harm than good in the bigger picture.

Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You
One of most amazing social evolutions in American life is the trend toward not showering. Everyone knows a person, or likely several, who thinks nothing of working out for an hour or two and then throws on his street clothes to head home or go on a date. The astounding growth in the men’s body spray market is an immediate indication that guys aren’t showering like they used to.

Dirty, moist, salty, warm skin is a perfect breeding ground for MRSA. Bacteria thrive on skin and grow rapidly in the right conditions. Showering is a vital part of curbing the MRSA epidemic. The CDC touts washing hands as a main defense for preventing MRSA, but washing hands only isn’t going to kill or remove the bacteria that might be present on a person’s legs or arms. Because the easiest way for MRSA to enter the body is via a cut or break in the skin, it’s crucial to get MRSA off the entire body—not just the hands.

Steps for Prevention
Now that we’ve established the problem, let’s look at ways to help workers protect themselves from MRSA. A simple MRSA prevention plan can help your workers stay infection free.

Wash hands regularly and shower after physical activity. Bacteria, including MRSA, live on the skin. Washing hands and showering (an antibacterial soap is not necessary) removes bacteria from the body, greatly reducing a worker’s chance of contracting an infection. Showers are extremely important after physical activity.

Treat and cover wounds. Breaks in the skin are the number one way MRSA enters the body. When treating minor wounds, look for an over-the counter wound-care treatment that kills MRSA. Ask your first aid supplier for a recommendation. Be sure to cover all wounds.

Don’t share personal items. Razors are especially troublesome in relation to spreading MRSA. It is possible for razors to break the skin and create opportunities for MRSA and other bacteria to enter the body. Bacteria can live on razors, as well as towels, benches, clothing, and similar items. It can be helpful to dry towels and clothing items in a dryer instead of hanging them up to dry. A warm to hot dryer helps to kill bacteria.

Wipe down gym equipment after use. Some companies offer gym equipment or a fitness center for workers. Be sure to wipe down gym equipment with an appropriate cleaner.

Properly clean tools, gear, and work equipment. Take time during the work day to clean the tools and equipment that can accumulate bacteria. Situations where workers share tools and gear may be ripe for the spread of infection-causing bacteria.

MRSA is here to stay, so it’s time to put a plan into action to protect your workers. Education and preparation will help keep your work environment infection free.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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