Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (also known as Ebola or EVD) has caused significant concerns for Ohio employers, particularly as the connections between our local workforce and Dallas healthcare worker April Vinson continue to come to light. Vinson, who has tested positive for the virus, reportedly traveled by air to Cleveland on October 10 and returned to Dallas on October 14. Following her return to Dallas, on October 15, she was diagnosed with EVD. Vinson’s travel activity has sparked tension, fear and in some cases panic amongst those who may have come in contact with her, directly or indirectly.
Employers have been faced with a barrage of inquiries from employees and their labor organizations seeking assurances that appropriate policies have been put in place that protect against the potential of exposure to EVD in the workplace. An employer’s response depends upon several fact specific matters and may implicate dozens of laws and regulations designed to protect employees, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, state workers’ compensation laws, and the federal and state antidiscrimination laws. Employers, however, can and should get out in front of the issue by taking certain proactive steps. This client alert is intended to provide practical guidance for employers as they wade through the legal quagmire that surrounds this issue.
What should I be communicating to my employees?
Effective communications are imperative to an employer’s ability to address any real or perceived concerns about workplace exposure to EVD. Employees want to know how their employer will handle the situation if harm becomes imminent.
There are a number of measures an employer can take to better educate employees about EVD. First, if a significant number of employees have expressed concern about the potential for exposure to EVD, consider conducting an informational meeting to discuss the facts as we know them today. Provide information about how the virus spreads and any preventative measures that should be taken (i.e., washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, covering open cuts and wounds, etc.). Reassure your employees that the risk of an outbreak in the United States is very low.
According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), EVD is only transmitted through contact with blood and other bodily fluids of an infected person. People can also become infected from indirect contact by having broken skin or mucous membranes come in contact with materials or utensils contaminated with the body fluids of an infected person. Casual contact, however, generally does not pose a risk of infection. The CDC and other public health officials remain confident that the U.S. will be able to stop further spread of EVD through thorough case review, isolation of infected individuals, contact tracing of people exposed to the virus, and isolation of contacts if they develop symptoms.
If you work in an industry where bloodborne pathogen training is required, review that training with your employees. You do not need to develop new training, as the bloodborne pathogen training is designed to cover all potentially infectious diseases, including Ebola. Remind your employees that they have already been trained to use universal precautions, review the training so that it is fresh in their minds, and answer any additional questions they may have. This should help to put their minds at ease.
You also may want to prepare your Human Resources personnel and/or supervisors on how to respond to employee questions and concerns in an appropriate manner. Consider designating a point person or team to disseminate additional information if and when it becomes available. This will help ensure that a consistent message is conveyed to all employees and that employees’ concerns are treated respectfully and consistently.
What can I be doing now to help my employees?
The CDC and the Ohio Department of Health have issued various protocols and guidelines pertaining to the exposure and spread of EVD. It is important to continuously review and monitor the latest of these publications.
Review your emergency preparedness plans. Have an idea of how you are going to respond if an employee falls sick on the job. Require employees to immediately report any potential symptoms of Ebola. Collaborate with health authorities regarding issues or questions that may arise if you were to have a reasonable basis for believing that an employee may have been exposed to Ebola or may actually have the virus. Consider whether you will need an isolation room, a disinfecting strategy and a method of contact tracing with respect to an infected or exposed employee. Finally, although employee medical information needs to be kept confidential, if one of your employees is diagnosed with EVD, you will need to immediately communicate with all other employees to protect their health and safety.
If you work in the healthcare industry, keep abreast of the most recent guidelines issued by the CDC for healthcare workers and train affected employees on the recommended infection control precautions. Labor and trade organizations representing healthcare workers have called for the following universal practices:
- Provide the highest optimal standard of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers;
- Provide extensive hands-on training, ongoing education and review of PPE, equipment and infection control protocols;
- Identify adequate numbers of appropriately prepared staff to safely meet patient needs.
In addition, because other infectious diseases may present symptoms similar to EVD, it is important to apply standard measures of precaution in all healthcare facilities – such as prevention of needle sticks and sharps injuries, safe phlebotomy, hand hygiene, rational use of PPE, regular and rigorous environmental cleaning, decontamination of surfaces and equipment and safe management of soiled linen and health care waste. It is also a good idea to review respiratory safety, including the proper fit an wear of a respirator, as well as proper cleaning methods.
As information relating to EVD is quickly changing, it is necessary within the healthcare industry to designate a point person or team capable of providing care to a patient who may present signs of infection. This point person, or team, also should be tasked with keeping abreast of the latest recommended procedures and disseminating that information to other caregivers.
How do I manage requests for leave?
Employees have the right to remove themselves from work situations if they reasonably believe that imminent, serious danger to their life or health exists. The OSH Act requires employers to provide employees a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Employees who voice safety concerns also have protection from retaliation. Employers also may face intentional tort or workers’ compensation claims for failing to provide a safe work environment. Each request for leave should be reviewed separately to determine whether leave is appropriate under the circumstances.
In addition, employers generally are not required to pay employees for any such requested leave. It is important to review applicable leave of absence policies and collective bargaining agreements to determine whether paid leave ought to be provided. Employers also will need to insure that any deductions from pay do not affect an exempt employee’s status under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Where can I find more information about Ebola?
There are many organizations that provide up to date information about Ebola to the general public including: