Personal Health

What Employers Need to Know About Ebola for Now

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa an international health emergency. More than 1,000 people have been killed by Ebola in West Africa alone.

Ebola is spreading with such ferocity that it could become a global pandemic to rival AIDS, according to  Centers for Disease Control director Tom Frieden.

As the epidemic hits closer to home following last week's death of the first American, entrepreneurs are increasingly asking, What should I do?

People should not panic. But employers also don’t want to play ostrich, either.

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1. Understand how transmission occurs.

According to the CDC, Ebola is not transmitted by causal contact. Generally speaking, it is spread through contact with blood or body fluids, including urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk and semen or with items contaminated with these fluids. 

Even employers not covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration's blood-borne pathogens standard are advised to follow its general principles when cleaning up a blood spill, which could occur in a workplace.

All employees should be educated on good hygiene. Don’t assume that everyone knows when to wash their hands!  

Human instinct may not always provide the safest course of action. The CDC's guidance about coughing and sneezing developed during the H1N1 influenza pandemic should be shared. Sneeze into your sleeve and not into your hand if you don’t have a tissue. 

Related: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Donates $25 Million to Fight Ebola

2. Educate employees.

Employers should be encouraged to educate employees about the symptoms of Ebola with a clear admonition that if they manifest any of them, they should see a doctor and not go to work if there's a question about whether they pose a risk of harm to others.  

The symptoms include having a high fever (greater than 101.5°Fahrenheit), severe headache and vomiting.

Of course, some individuals may experience some of these symptoms and not have Ebola. Make that clear to avoid causing panic.

3. Heed the law when weighing travel restrictions.

The CDC has issued a Level 3 travel warning urging U.S. residents to avoid all nonessential travel to the areas hardest hit

Employers may want to do the same. Imposing a prohibition may result in legal risk, however.

Such a restriction could subject an employer to legal risk. Some states, such as New York and California, protect lawful off-duty conduct.

Furthermore, a prohibition may interfere with other rights. An employee may have rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a spouse, child or parent in West Africa.

At this point, companies should probably avoid a travel restriction unless a government or health authority recommends or imposes one.  

Be alert for updates from the State Department about possible restrictions.  

Related: How Your Smartphone Is Becoming Your Doctor

4. Consider the laws about medical evaluations. 

Based on the current status of epidemic, requiring a medical evaluation of an employee who has traveled to and returned from West Africa would be a dicey course of action for an employer.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers can require a medical evaluation only if it's justified by business necessity. In this context, that would mean that others face a significant risk of substantial harm of exposure. The ADA standard is probably not met in most workplaces at this point in time.  

No government or medical authority has recommended the need for a medical evaluation of employees traveling to West Africa. But such a recommendation could come from governmental or independent health-care authorities in the future so stay informed. 

5. Treat health care workers with caution.

For health care providers, the risk analysis about whether to mandate a medical evaluation of an employee is different.  

Workers may be exposed to patients with the virus. So complying with standard universal precautions is a must. The CDC has issued some guidance for health care workers. 

There is now a reported case of a health care worker's having contracted Ebola though her workplace, where CDC guidelines were supposed to be in use. So the CDC is considering revising its guidance for health care providers. 

Also, health care workers themselves may have the virus and not yet know it because of the incubation period (on average eight to 10 days). So health-care workers could pose some risk to patients, too, if universal precautions aren't 100 percent effective. 

At this point in the epidemic, at least in the United States, when entrepreneurs consider the situation, the risk of mandating a medical evaluation probably outweighs the risk of not doing so.

The situation is fluid and the calculus could change, particularly if government agencies or health care authorities require or even recommend such evaluations. 

6. Be alert to discrimination and harassment.

Entrepreneurs must make sure managers do not discriminate against employees who are African or who have visited West Africa. Such discrimination could violate Title VII (concerning national origin) as well as the ADA (because of a perceived disability).

Entrepreneurs need to keep their eyes and ears open for employees' potential harassment of Africans or those who have visited West Africa. The harassment could be active, such as disparaging, demeaning or insulting jokes or slurs. It also could take the form of avoidance. 

This article should not be construed as legal or medical advice.

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