Ebola Outbreak: Employer Tips To Protect Workforce

With several cases of Ebola diagnosed in the United States, employers should be prepared to protect the workforce, especially if employees travel to an Ebola-infected country (for business or personal reasons), or even domestically, as cases arise in this country. Employers should educate employees working in areas threatened by the Ebola virus about how to prevent the spread of the disease and should be ready to respond if an employee becomes sick.

Ebola is a severe, often fatal illness, with a death rate of up to 90%. The origin of the virus is unknown but is believed to be carried by rats, bats, and other animals and spread to human through contact with bodily fluids accordion to World Health Organization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/:

  • Ebola is spread through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids of a sick person. Ebola is not spread through casual conduct.
  • To spread the disease to others, an infected individual must actually be experiencing symptoms
  • Ebola symptoms include:
    • Fever greater than 101.5 degrees
    • Severe headache
    • Muscle pain
    • Weakness
    • Diarrhea
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal pain
    • Unexplained hemorrhaging

The list of countries most affected by the disease currently include: Nigeria, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Below are tips and strategies for employers to be prepared for Ebola outbreaks:

  • Communicate with employees. Give pertinent information from the CDC, explain steps the company is taking to protect employees and others, reaffirm company’s stance on health and safety.
  • Review basic hygiene practices with employees, i.e., regular hand washing, recommend flu shots, etc.
  • Appoint a manager to develop protocol for handing employee concerns.
  • Instruct employees to avoid situations where they may be exposed to Ebola, and to stay home if they feel ill.
  • Ask employees about travel plans. If an employee travels to West Africa, or is otherwise exposed to Ebola. Employers can ask certain questions, i.e. Did you have contact with anyone who was exposed to Ebola?, Are you experiencing any flu-like symptoms?, etc. However, employers should ensure that the inquiries are not likely to reveal an employee’s disability, which can lead to liability under the ADA.
  • Recommend travel precautions with employees and recommend they seek medical care immediately, if they develop any symptoms while traveling, or within 21 days of return.
  • Taking an employee’s temperature. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers taking an employee’s temperature as being a medical examination, which is normally prohibited, unless the employer determines it is job-related and consistent with business necessity (please seek legal advice or consult with HR representative for this step, may also violate ADA).
  • Be prepared to take action as needed, remember, to be contagious an individual must experience Ebola symptoms.
  • For employees who return and do not experience any symptoms within the first 21 days, no further action is needed.
  • If the employee does develop symptoms within 21 days after returning, employers may prevent the employee from resuming work until he or she has been medically cleared. Be cautious with this step, because requiring an employee to stay home against his or her will could create potential liability for employers down the road (you may want to pay the employee even if he or she is normally paid by the hour only for work actually performed). If possible, depending on the employee’s job duties, it may be feasible to allow the employee to work from home while pending medical clearance.
  • Review company emergency preparedness plans on how to respond if an employee falls sick on the job. The plan should include communicating with other employees, setting up an isolation room, transporting ill employees appropriately, and protecting employees who come in contact with those who are ill.

Essentially, employers should educate themselves and their employees, monitor the workplace, and take action as needed to ensure a safe workplace for all. If workers refuse to do their jobs, stating they are fearful of contracting the disease, remember there are legal protections, under the OSHA anti-retaliation law, for people who choose to refuse. Review the CDC guidelines at www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola. Always seek legal advice or speak with your HR representative, before making decisions, to avoid litigation, and/or violations of EEOC or ADA regulations.

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