By Dennis Thompson
(HealthDay News) -- As fears of a flu epidemic that could cause severe illness or death gripped much of the United States the past two winters, George Boue grappled with more fear than just his own.
As vice president of human resources for a Fort Lauderdale commercial real estate firm, Boue had to devise a plan to reassure and protect not only the company's employees but also the tenants of the 45 office buildings and shopping centers it managed.
Hand-washing and hygiene became one of the key tactics embraced by the Stiles Corp. safety committee, Boue said.
"The one thing you can control more than anything else is washing your hands," Boue said. "People realized, 'This is one way I can have control over this situation.' Even though there's the possibility of getting it from someone next to you, airborne, you have more control over whether you get H1N1 if you keep your hands clean."
The company put up posters in common areas, urging people to wash their hands. Employees received e-mails containing U.S. National Institutes of Health guidelines on how to properly wash their hands.
As tension mounted, Stiles Corp. went further. It placed pump bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in all its conference rooms. Dispensers also were placed in key spots near elevators and in lobbies. "You put your hand underneath and you get a squirt of the foamy stuff," Boue said.
Stiles Corp. started its H1N1 response by focusing just on employees but extended its program to tenants when they began to ask what management was doing to prevent the spread of flu in its buildings.
The educational messages and the ready access to hand sanitizer played a key role in preventing the spread of influenza through the company, Boue said. Only one other strategy -- urging people to stay home when they were sick -- proved potentially more effective than hand-washing.
"Did we really prevent something from happening? In the company here, I think we had two H1N1 cases that were family members, not the employees themselves," Boue said. "I would speculate that yes, hand cleanliness contributed to it, but I think our policy that if you were sick you should stay home probably helped more."
The H1N1 scare may have created unintended public health benefits that continue to this day, he said.
"I think the whole H1N1 scare had a mindset change with many people to disinfect their hands more than they did in the past," Boue said, noting that human resources colleagues at other companies report similar observations. "Before H1N1, when flu season came along, we sent out communications about health and safety, but H1N1 really scared people into behavioral change. I see all the time in the lobby people as they get out of the elevator get a quick squirt of the hand sanitizer."
After a pause, he added: "I think the hand sanitizer industry must be doing much better than it was before."
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