Delivering MRSA Awareness in the Workplace

No one is immune, and any of us could be exposed. In a regular training setting, typically three to four employees know someone who has or has had a staph infection in the past six months.

"So, Chicken Little, what's the hysteria training for today?" a well-dressed, impatient manager quipped as he juggled his cell phone, coffee, and a newspaper to review during the safety training. "This will not last long, will it? I'm really busy. In fact, I may have to cut out early."

At a recent MRSA awareness class for employees, I was greeted with a mixture of sardonic humor, snide remarks, and "10 feet tall and indestructible" attitudes. After only a few minutes, however, the mood changed and these same employees were alert and asking questions. A planned session of 30-45 minutes ran over to almost three hours of intent interest and requested follow-up. A fluke? Hardly. To be effective as safety trainers, we have to leave our attitudes at the door and construct awareness, education, and training that meets the needs of the group and holds their attention. It has to be worth your time and effort, and theirs.

Fear, hysteria, what if -- are all terms used at one time or another to describe safety awareness and education or training for employees. These employees so quick to disregard our efforts also overlook other safety events, such as coming ice storms, hurricanes, or just driving all day with empty gas tanks in their vehicles. In their worlds, nothing bad ever happens. Until something bad happens.

Take my example of MRSA awareness. Be direct, be open, and stay on target. Although you cannot make anyone an expert in an awareness session, you can create interest and a desire to learn more!

What is MRSA? It is in the news often, but employees may not relate it to the work environment. Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, a type of staph "super bug," often causes skin infections and is resistant to many antibiotics, including penicillin and methicillin. Originally associated with hospitals, it now has moved into the law enforcement community, prison populations, secondary schools, gyms, and office environments. No one is immune, and any of us could be exposed. In a regular training setting, typically three to four employees know someone who has or has had a staph infection in the past six months.

What does it look like? Often misdiagnosed originally, MRSA is treated as a spider bite, a skin boil, or an abscess with red streaks. While many of these smaller skin infections may heal without advanced treatment, medical attention is needed for sores that do not heal, in order to prevent possible work exposures to others. It usually takes two to 10 days to show symptoms after initial exposure, and MRSA is often dismissed until it becomes a crisis and an ER visit.

Workplace Implications
Narrow the issue and whom it affects at your workplace: What does MRSA mean to me? More than 90,000 Americans get potentially deadly infections each year from drug-resistant staph super bugs. More than 13,000 die each year from complications. First documented in the 1880s and treated effectively for many years with antibiotics, it is now growing at an alarming rate of spread.

Dangers in the work community include public venue exposure, law enforcement, cleaning staff, medical staff, and employees bringing it from gyms, health clubs, or other family members and exposing co-workers. MRSA is long-lived on surfaces and fabrics.

How does it spread? MRSA is a common bacteria passed easily from the skin of one person to another. Something as simple as sharing an item of PPE can cause an outbreak in your workplace. (Picture employees sharing uniform jackets, hearing protection, or towels during outside training.) Ask specifically whether anyone in the group has ever shared an item of PPE, uniform, or even a cell phone. You'll have their attention!

How is it treated? Treatment varies depending on need, but a medical provider is your best bet. MRSA bacteria adapt to resist new antibiotics. Skill is needed to protect other employees and family members, too. Emphasize prevention methods, such as hand washing and correct cleaning of uniforms, clothing, and shoes.

Effective Training Ideas
Tailor the presentation to a general group or for unique needs, such as housekeepers or those who may work in potential exposure areas of prisons, courthouses, gyms, or health clubs, sharing vehicles, etc. This makes the topic relevant to their daily job. Deal with how to prevent and how to manage infections, because both strategies are needed.

Be descriptive and use language the group can follow. Explain your company's program elements and the tools and skills to meet the need. With MRSA, there are many parts to a successful prevention program, including employee hygiene, tools/skills and chemicals to improve cleanliness, skills needed to combat spread, awareness and assessment, consistent medical treatment when needed, and management commitment to keep the efforts moving forward.

Handouts need to be related and concise; refer to any handout rather than reading it to the employees. Graphics help, as does breaking the topic into sections. For general awareness, more than a page or so becomes lost on employees. Link the handout to your intranet site to help draw them in for additional topics. For targeted groups, give explicit work examples, such as restraints/transports for law enforcement, medical staff not washing hands or changing gloves adequately. Offer specific tips for cleaning PPE items, uniforms, and office environments.

Provide a method for them to learn more. Physical demonstrations often drive home the needed data. Having a "show and tell" of various waterless hand sanitizers, how to wash hands correctly, and approved and unapproved cleaners (including why they are not EPA approved) can be a real crowd pleaser and bring positive feedback quickly from the group. (You'll be surprised how much, or little, they know! Just because it smells good does not mean it kills germs!) Providing the cost of various items also helps in these budget-pinching times.

Have your facts straight and be ready with your references. Having extra references on hand is extremely useful for any training session. For MRSA awareness, have prepared lists of websites, such as www.cdc.gov and www.osha.gov, any recent news articles relating high-profile or celebrity deaths/surgeries due to MRSA, etc. Also highly recommended is a copy of the most up-to-date products list approved by the EPA (www.epa.gov/oppad001/chemregindex.htm). You'll find videos and lots of other information online, perhaps even on your local news channels.

Contact info: Employees may know you by name/sight or not at all. Make sure you leave them some type of contact information and a way to confidentially discuss additional concerns. Allow the opportunity to ask questions.

You'll be amazed and pleased by the results and evaluations of awareness sessions like this. Timely, fast-moving, and workplace-appropriate is exactly what safety training should be. It also opens a needed avenue for information exchange for current concerns and future problems or training topics!

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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