On Friday morning, the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has reached the proportions of an international health emergency. The disease has killed almost 1,000 people and infected hundreds more in Africa, and two Americans have been transported back to the U.S. from Africa for treatment for the disease—with a general counsel flying the plane.
For now, the Ebola threat in U.S. workplaces remains low. However, companies will do no harm in making sure they have policies that keep the office healthy and safe.
Peter Gillespie, of counsel at Fisher & Phillips, told CorpCounsel.com that Ebola is a serious disease, but the chances of it reaching the U.S. in a significant way are still “pretty low,” and the odds of it spreading in the workplace seem slim too.
“What employers need to keep in mind is as scary as Ebola sounds in terms of its transmission possibilities right now, all the guidance says casual contract is not a mechanism for Ebola to be transmitted from person to person,” he said. According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola is only transmitted through contact with blood and other bodily fluids of an infected person.
Of course, there is always at least some small cause for concern during an outbreak, particularly if an employee has to travel to an area where people have been infected. “A very common thing that comes up,” explained Gillespie, “when lawyers are facing a workplace that maybe has a lot of international travel, and you’ve got an outbreak like this, is this question of: ‘Can I require an employee to get a medical exam of some kind?’”
The answer is likely no. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Gillespie, a company can’t compel an employee who is asymptomatic to undergo any medical exam or even so much as get his or her temperature taken.
However, this doesn’t mean that employers have no ability to keep their workplaces safe and hygienic. Gillespie recommends a “proactive collaborative approach” that sends the message that the employer takes health in the workplace seriously and discourages the sorts of frustration from employees that lead to legal liability. If an employee truly is sick, management shouldn’t try to keep the employee at work. “Encourage employees who have concerns to use the leave available to them,” Gillespie said, whether this is sick time or time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. He also encourages employers, if appropriate, to allow employees who are feeling ill to telecommute and take advantage of the many technologies that allow them to participate in meetings and other work remotely.
Another big part of the picture is a subject that can lead to some rather uncomfortable discussions in the workplace: the importance of good hygiene. Gillespie said he doesn’t think the Ebola situation warrants specific warnings from employers to their employees about staying hygienic to prevent the disease from taking hold, but it’s as good a time as any to take a look at policies.
If concerns are raised about an employee’s hygiene, management or human resources would be best advised to have a private discussion with the employee, according to Gillespie. He added that sometimes bad hygiene can be a symptom of some deeper problems and stressors that the employee is experiencing. “It can often open up a host of other issues that the employer needs to be concerned about,” he said.
Gillespie emphasized that employers shouldn’t panic or create emergency-type responses for Ebola because having anxious employees is never in anyone’s best interest. Rather, companies should just keep an eye on information and guidance coming from the CDC and other sources. “Because you see it in the papers and you see it’s drawing lots of attention, it’s just a reminder that if you have health and safety plans and you have response plans, somebody in HR should know where they are, dust them off, take a look at them and makes sure the continuity plans are there so you’re prepared.”