After a British supplier of the influenza vaccine indicated it would not be able to ship millions of promised doses to the United States, a bit of panic set in. Who would be able to get the shot? Who would get sick?

Although building service contractors can’t do much to alleviate a vaccine shortage or stop people from getting the flu completely, they can help reduce the risk for their customers and their employees.

“If you understand how the flu gets around, you can help keep it from spreading,” says Scott Robinson, safety director for ABM Industries in San Francisco. Influenza, he says, primarily spreads in one of three ways —contact with an infected surface, contact with an infected person and inhaling the airborne virus.

“Be careful about what you are touching,” he advises. If a sick person sneezes on a desk, touches a keyboard or picks up a phone, and you touch that surface and then touch a mucous membrane (such as your nose, eyes or mouth), you may become infected. The flu virus stays viable on some surfaces for up to 24 hours.

BSCs can help by cleaning and disinfecting these surfaces — called fomites — on a regular basis. (For more information, see “Cross Contamination” in the September issue of Contracting Profits.) Robinson also advises people to stay away from others who are coughing, sneezing or otherwise obviously ill. Also, be careful about sharing towels, cups and utensils with other people.

Regardless of how the flu is transmitted, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta suggests one of the best ways to stay healthy is simple — wash your hands.

“The single best advice I can give is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly,” Robinson says. “I wash my hands several times a day – when I come in, after I shake hands with someone, before I eat, after using the restroom, when I get home.”

Similarly, many industry players are getting involved in hand hygiene this season — Kimberly-Clark Professional in Roswell, Ga., for instance, donated hand sanitizer bottles to a senior residence.

Unfortunately, even as cleaning companies are able to help their customers reduce their risk of getting sick, there probably will be cleaners themselves who end up ill.

BSCs are unlikely to have many employees who are in high-risk categories — the very young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. But that means many BSC employees won’t be getting flu shots this year, which could lead to increased absenteeism. Robinson encourages contractors to tell their sick employees to stay home, even though many janitors do not receive paid sick leave.

“If a person has the flu, they should stay home until they get better,” he says. “When they’re sick, they’re not as good a worker – they’ll miss things. They’ll infect others.”