Just how concerned should U.S. employers be about protecting their employees from the Ebola virus? That depends largely upon the industry you’re in – at least for now.
World health authorities are already declaring Ebola a worldwide catastrophe in the making, comparing it to the HIV contagion of three decades ago. Their concern is twofold: no vaccine exists against it, and travelers can (so far) export the virus from one part of the world to another with little chance of detection.
Immediately, several job descriptions are being targeted for prevention measures:
- All health care classifications;
- Funeral and mortuary workers;
- Laboratory workers;
- Humanitarian workers;
- Airline and airport workers; and
- First responders.
Because of the relative ease with which the virus can be transported and transmitted, many experts are advising all employers to at least take note of the potential for the disease to enter their work environment and to begin by talking about it with employees.
“While it is too early to assert that Ebola will be a major health issue among the U.S. population, employers in the United States have started asking what preparations and actions they should be taking,” wrote attorney Thomas Benjamin Huggett of the Philadelphia office of the law firm Littler Mendelson. “Employers should consider the wide range of decisions that may arise, including: restricting international travel; medical inquiries and potential quarantines for employees who have traveled; leave from work; and educating management and employees.”
The fast-moving virus is, according to many health-care experts, outpacing attempts to contain its spread. The American public was already worried about a major outbreak back in August, when the Harvard Business Review released findings that nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they feared a huge contagion. Whether those fears are out of proportion to the risk is impossible to gauge at this juncture. As a result, businesses should be ready to respond to employee concerns with an action plan.
Littler Mendelson attorney Huggett said workplaces will largely be divided into two categories in terms of Ebola response: health-care employers and everyone else.
“Within the U.S., health care workers are at the greatest risk of infection. Because their workers may come into direct contact with EVD, health-care employers need to review their infectious disease protocols to ensure they are prepared for the specific risks associated with the virus,” he said. “Health care and other employees have the right to remove themselves from a work situation that they have reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health. When an employee exercises this right, he or she must be protected from retaliation for expressing a safety concern.”
Huggett said health-care employers should follow a strict protocol with their employees by briefing them about the nature and transmission of the disease, and developing best practices for interacting with patients, disposing of biohazards properly, and following strict hygienic practices at all times.
“For all other workplaces, returning travelers are the primary concern. Affected countries are requested to conduct exit medical screenings of all persons at international airports, seaports and major land crossings for unexplained febrile illness consistent with potential Ebola infection. Nevertheless, returning business travelers from the affected areas should be notified of the symptoms and asked to be alert to their surfacing within 21 days after return,” he said.
Employers can’t legally take more aggressive actions such as requiring returning travelers to undergo a medical exam for Ebola, he said.