Cold and flu prevention

Cold and flu prevention in the workplace image

Cold and flu spread more easily in the cold winter months because they thrive in colder, less humid environments. More people become infected with colds and flus in winter. In Australia, cold and flu infections are most likely to occur between May and September. At this time you have a higher risk of contracting colds and flus at work, because it is more likely your colleagues will catch colds and flus which they can pass on at work. That means you’re more likely to need time off work in winter to recover from a cold or flu, and this may interfere with work deadlines and your productivity at work.

Whether you work in an office, healthcare facility or other workplace, you are at risk of contracting a virus at work, from your colleagues or people who visit your workplace (e.g. patient if you work in a health facility or children if you are a childcare worker). While cold and flu viruses spread rapidly in indoor environments like offices, they can also spread in outdoor work environments, when they become airborne or contaminate a surface that many people touch, like the handle of a tool.

How do cold and flu spread?

Cold and flu viruses are highly contagious and the contagious period begins immediately after infection. In the early stage of infection, a person with a cold or flu does not have symptoms like blocked nose or coughing. Thus they are unaware that they are sick and may infect others unknowingly. Influenza is typically contagious for 24 hours before symptoms appear, and continues to be contagious for up to seven days. Common colds are typically most contagious for the initial 2–3 days of infection but may be passed on to others up to a week later.

People who go to work while they are infected with cold and flu may expose their colleagues and workplace visitors to their virus, for example if they cough or sneeze at work.

Colds and flu cause employees to take more time off work overall and reduce their productivity when they go to work but are unwell. Because it is not always possible to identify people who have a cold or flu and/or keep them away from the workplace, effective cold and flu prevention at work requires more than simply avoiding those known to be infected.

Stopping the spread of cold and flu viruses at work

Cold and flu prevention in the workplace imageAvoiding exposure to cold and flu viruses is the basis of prevention, and avoiding people who have a cold or flu is one important way to avoid exposure. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, their cold or influenza virus becomes airborne and survives for approximately one hour in the air. If another person inhales the air carrying the cold or flu droplets, they can catch the virus.

Respiratory droplets containing cold and flu viruses may also settle on surfaces in the vicinity of the infected person (within one metre of them). Other people who touch these surfaces may contaminate their hands and then infect themselves if they touch their face. People might also become infected by shaking hands or making other contact with infected individuals who have coughed or sneezed onto their hands. Employers should take measures to ensure staff who know they have a cold or flu stay away from work until their symptoms resolve and they are no longer contagious.

If no one with a cold or flu entered the workplace during the contagious period of infection, transmission at work would be avoided. However, in the initial period of cold or flu infection when there are no symptoms, individuals are contagious but unaware of their infection.

The nature of some workplaces, for example healthcare settings, means that some employees are unable to avoid other individuals even if they know they have a cold or flu infection. Implementing good hygiene and flu vaccination policies in the workplace are therefore necessary to minimise the spread of cold and flu.

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Measures to keep infected individuals out of the workplace

Stay away from work if you have cold and flu

Staying at home when you are ill is an important measure to reduce the likelihood you will share your cold or flu virus with a colleague. Even when you are not feeling so ill that you need to rest and recuperate, you may still be contagious and should stay at home. This will reduce the likelihood that your cold or flu virus will enter the workplace and infect others. You should also go home immediately if you feel yourself coming down with a cold or flu while you are at work.

Cold and flu image For more information on recognising the symptoms of colds and flu, see Cold and Flu: Which Do I Have?


In some workplaces, staff may be screened for influenza and instructed to go home if they are infected. Screening is most likely to occur in workplaces where staff are in close contact with people who have a high risk of flu complications, such as in hospital intensive care units.

Equip the workplace for cold and flu prevention

Workplaces should be equipped with a range of hygiene products that can be used to prevent transmission of cold and flu. These include tissues, soap, paper towels and disinfectant gels and wipes. Talk to your employer about providing these products if they do not already.

Be prepared to take time off when cold or flu hit

To ensure you are able to take time off work when you have cold or flu, it is important to make plans to ensure your job (or at least the most vital components of it) gets done while you are away. Try to train at least one other person to do your job so they can cover for you in periods of illness. If you work in an office, talk to your employers about providing facilities that allow you to work from home when you are contagious but not feeling sick enough for time off work, such as remote meeting and teleconferencing facilities.

Keep visitors with cold and flu away from workplaces

Cold and flu prevention in the workplace imageIf your workplace attracts lots of visitors (e.g. childcare centre, school, university or health facility), the people who visit your workplace can also spread viruses like cold and flu if they are infected. Visitors should also be encouraged to stay away when they are ill. In workplaces such as hospitals, visitors may be screened for influenza infection before they are allowed to enter, particularly at times of influenza outbreak. If you work at or your children attend a childcare centre or schools, there may be a policy requesting that children with influenza or similar illness stay at home, or that staff are informed of the infection so that appropriate strategies can be put in place to prevent the cold or flu spreading. Where it is not possible to keep visitors with cold or flu away from a workplace, wearing protective equipment (e.g. a mask) and cohorting those with flu or flu-like illnesses may prevent transmission to uninfected individuals. For example, a childcare centre may keep all children with colds in a separate room so they don’t infect the other children.

Cold and flu signs and reminders

Putting up signs to remind staff and visitors to stay away when infected and practise good hygiene to prevent spreading infections at work can also help prevent cold and flu spreading. Signs should be placed strategically around the workplace (e.g. at entrances, in lifts and stairwells). Signs may ask infected staff or visitors to:

  • Inform someone of their illness before entering the workplace;
  • Perform hygiene practices such washing hands when they enter the workplace;
  • Use personal protective equipment such as a surgical mask while in the workplace.

These measures are regulation for healthcare facilities but may also be of use in other workplaces.

Measures to reduce employees’ risk of infection

Cold and flu information and education

Being informed about cold and flu is an important workplace strategy for reducing transmission. Training programs may include information about how influenza is transmitted and how transmission can be prevented. Ask your employer to hold an information day or provide factsheets about cold and flu in the workplace. If you work with people who speak languages other than English, it may be a good idea to provide written information about influenza in multiple languages.

Influenza vaccination

Cold and flu prevention in the workplace imageInfluenza vaccination is the best way to prevent infection with the flu, but no vaccines are available to prevent common colds. If you or a member of your family often visits someone else’s workplace (e.g. if your children go to childcare) they should be vaccinated for influenza every year. Vaccination is particularly important if your job brings you in close contact with children under 5 years of age. Because they have a tendency to put their hands and other things in their mouths, young children are more likely to pass on influenza than adults and older children. A flu shot is also recommended for individuals with a high risk of flu complications, including people:

  • Aged over 65;
  • Who are pregnant;
  • Who are over 6 months of age and have medical conditions which increase the risk of severe infection and complications if they do catch the flu, including:
    • Severe asthma;
    • Heart problems;
    • Lung conditions;
    • Kidney disorders;
    • Any chronic illnesses which required medical follow-up or hospitalisation in the last year;
    • Diseases of the nervous system;
    • Impaired immunity;
    • Diabetes;
  • Whose jobs make it highly likely that they will be in contact with infected individuals (e.g. health and childcare workers, plumbers).

Influenza vaccination reduces the likelihood of flu even for healthy adults. It is important to get a flu shot every year, as the vaccines are updated annually to include the most recent influenza strains.

To ensure the vaccine has enough time to stimulate antibody production before flu season, make sure you are vaccinated during autumn. Workplace vaccination is mandatory and paid for by employers of people who work in some industries (e.g. for healthcare workers in direct contact with patients or infected body fluids). In other industries it is voluntary, although employers may fund workplace vaccination programs because they maximise the number of employees who get immunised and minimise absenteeism due to influenza infection. Employers may also help their staff get vaccinated by making it easier to get the flu shot. For example they may provide transport to the clinic or organise a mobile clinic to visit the worksite.

Vaccination For more information on influenza vaccination, see Flu Vaccine.


Preventing cold and flu with protective equipment

The use of personal protective equipment such as facemasks may be warranted if your job makes you highly likely to come into contact with infected individuals (e.g. work in a hospital). Visitors may also wear protective equipment to protect themselves or prevent passing their infection to others. For example, patients who are coughing when they arrive at a clinic may be asked to wear a surgical mask.

Staying healthy to fight cold and flu infection

Staying healthy reduces the risk of infections like cold and flu. Make sure you:

Workplace hygiene measures to prevent cold and flu transmission

Hand washing

Cold and flu prevention in the workplace imageHand washing is an effective way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including cold and flu viruses. Wash your hands regularly throughout the day (and encourage your colleagues to do the same) using the correct hand washing technique (e.g. lathering with soap for 15 seconds) or with an alcohol-based disinfectant. Washing your hands at specific times associated with infection also reduces cold and flu transmission, for example:

  • After coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose;
  • Before touching your face;
  • After touching contaminated objects such as tissues;
  • After cleaning surfaces which may be contaminated;
  • After shaking hands with someone known or suspected to be infected.

Covering mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing

Practising good cough and sneeze etiquette – covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing – reduces the likelihood of cold and flu viruses becoming airborne and/or contaminating surfaces and other objects in the work environment. However, when the hands are used to cover the mouth, they become contaminated. Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze and encourage your workmates to do the same. The tissue should be disposed of and the hands washed immediately afterwards. If no tissue is available, cough into the sleeve at the inner elbow. Make sure you have a bin for tissue disposal. Ask your boss to place signs around the workplace to remind people to practise good cough etiquette.

Avoid touching mouths, noses and eyes

Cold and flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces for up to eight hours and on a person’s hands for approximately five minutes after they touch a contaminated surface such as a hand or desktop. From there they can cause infection if the person touches their mouth or eyes. You can therefore reduce your risk of infection by avoiding touching your face, or washing your hands before you do so.

Clean surfaces and equipment

Shared surfaces and equipment in the workplace should be cleaned regularly to ensure cold and flu viruses are removed. Ideally they should be wiped with disposable disinfectant wipes. Surfaces and objects that should be cleaned regularly include:

  • Door knobs and handles;
  • Buttons on equipment such as photocopiers or microwaves;
  • Surfaces of shared equipment such as power tools;
  • Keyboards, particularly before you use another person’s keyboard;
  • Telephone buttons and handles, particularly before you use another person’s telephone;
  • Handles of kitchen equipment like coffee pots and microwaves;
  • Benches and counters;
  • Books or other materials which are shared.

Dispose of articles contaminated with cold and flu germs

Cold and flu prevention in the workplace imageArticles contaminated or potentially contaminated with cold and flu viruses should be disposed of or quarantined for disinfection immediately. These include:

  • Tissues;
  • Disposable wipes used for cleaning surface;
  • Clothes or products used to clean an infected person;
  • Articles which have been in contact with an infected person such as bedding or clothing.

Keep a distance from people with cold and flu

In the workplace, avoid close contact with people who are known or suspected to be ill. Whenever possible:

  • Stand at least one metre away from people with infections;
  • Avoid skin contact (e.g. shaking hands), with infected individuals;
  • Wash your hands as soon as possible after skin contact with an infected individual occurs;
  • Avoid sharing eating and drinking utensils like straws and spoons.

Workplace hygiene reminders

Reminders for staff and visitors to implement hygiene measures to prevent cold and flu transmission may help improve hygiene behaviour. For example, you could ask your employer to place reminders:

  • To wash hands, in toilets (after going to the toilet) or in kitchens (before eating);
  • To cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, in prominent locations around the workplace;
  • To stay home when sick, in prominent locations throughout the workplace;
  • Clean surfaces in their work environment, for example wipe the desk and keyboard.

Printable workplace poster on preventing cold and flu

ohs poster image Download a printable workplace poster on preventing cold and flu for employees and for employers.

More information

For more information on the common cold and influenza, types of influenza and treatments and tips for preventing influenza, see
Cold and Flu.


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