Medical Q&As

Winter vomiting bug - in the workplace?

Can the winter vomiting bug take hold in a large office environment as it has in hospitals? If so, how would an organisation best deal with this situation?

It is possible for an outbreak of infection with the winter vomiting bug to take place in an office environment. However, the environments where outbreaks have occurred most frequently include hospitals, nursing homes, day care centres, cruise ships and holiday resorts. The infection can be acquired through contact with contaminated food. Contaminated shellfish, salads and fruit have all been responsible for outbreaks. Infected food handlers have also been identified as primary sources of the infection. Contaminated drinking water can also be a source of infection. The best way for an organisation to ensure that an outbreak is prevented is by instituting good hygiene practices in the workplace, especially in catering departments. This is particularly important with foods such as sandwiches, which are not cooked but yet require a good deal of handling during their preparation. In particular all staff, and not just the catering staff, should wash their hands thoroughly after being to the toilet. If a person is carrying the virus and does not wash their hands properly after defaecation they might transmit the virus to food or even onto the hands of fellow workers. If that person then brings a contaminated hand to their mouth or eats contaminated food they in turn ingest the virus and soon afterwards they may develop acute vomiting and diarrhoea. This route of transmission is referred to as the faecal-oral route and thorough hand washing is the most effective way of interrupting this chain of transmission. Once the primary infection has occurred the infection can then be passed to others by aerosol. For example if an infected person vomits the virus can hang in the air in tiny microscopic droplets of moisture and a person passing through that invisible aerosol can acquire the virus. It is probably advisable for the person cleaning up such material to wear a facemask and clean up the contaminated area with ordinary domestic bleach. The National Disease Surveillance Centre recommends that people who have been ill with vomiting or diarrhoea should stay out of work for at least two days after symptoms have stopped in order to prevent transmission of the virus to others.