NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
As the flu season nears, companies forced to cut back or cancel their flu vaccine programs are coming up with alternatives in a bid to keep employees healthy.
Many companies are taking the basic steps of asking employees to stay home when sick and urging them to wash their hands more frequently.
"It takes 18 to 20 seconds to properly wash your hands," said Roslyn Stone, head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's workplace flu prevention group.
Some, however, are eyeing other steps -- such as stocking up on germ-killing wipes or hand-sanitizing lotions.
Antivirus software maker McAfee (Research), for example, has ordered additional dispensers of hand sanitizer for its bathrooms. It has also asked that water pressure at its facilities be increased so that more warm water flows when employees wash their hands.
Laser maker Coherent (Research) also said it is putting sanitizing dispensers in break rooms and other areas of its offices in Santa Clara and Auburn, Calif.
"We view this as a small cost for the amount of savings that hopefully it will contribute," said Coherent Spokesman Peter Schuman. "We look at it as a good business decision."
The average worker misses a day to a day and a half a year because of the flu, says David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard. That adds up to about $20 billion in lost productivity a year, Cutler says.
The U.S. normally gets some 100 million doses of flu vaccine each year. That supply was reduced dramatically this year when the supply from one manufacturer, Chiron (Research), was potentially contaminated.
About 60% of companies normally offer onsite flu vaccine to employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. The number will be much lower this year, as many corporate vaccine programs have been cancelled, while others have been scaled back to cover only employees who are at risk.
Eye on efficiency
That's not to say the cuts are certain to take a huge toll on worker productivity.
After all, experts are hoping for a mild flu season -- and most workers don't get the flu vaccines offered at work anyway. The average participation rate in corporate flu-shot programs is 20 to 25 percent, said the CDC's Stone, who is also COO of Corporate Wellness Inc., a New York company that provides flu shots and other medical services to about 1,000 midsize companies.
Still, the attention being paid to the vaccine shortage has helped business for makers of hand-sanitizing products.
Gojo Industries, the maker of the market-leading Purell hand sanitizer, said it has seen a spike in interest. Privately held Gojo, which is in the process of selling its consumer business to Pfizer, would not release sales figures.
Best Sanitizers Inc. has traditionally focused on selling its alcohol-based sanitizing spritz to the industrial food and health-care markets. Annual sales at the Penn Valley, Calif., company run between $5 million and $10 million, according to President Hillard Witt, and have been growing at about 50 percent a year.
Best Sanitizers had rolled out a program targeting offices before the vaccine shortage was announced, but interest has really grown since the flu-vaccine shortage made the headlines.
"Our sales are probably going to more than double, maybe even go up by as much as 200% this year because there are so many people that are becoming aware of this now," said Witt. Most of those gains will be the result of the flu vaccine shortage and related interest, Witt added. "Now every business is a potential candidate for our product."