The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (“OSHA”) recently released an advisory addressing employer and employee obligations “in the event of possible worker exposure to the Ebola virus.” Employers who believe that there is possible worker exposure to Ebola virus must implement various OSHA standards as part of a comprehensive worker protection program. The question many employers now face is: when does our workforce meet the threshold of “possible worker exposure” that would trigger implementation of these standards?
For many industries, it is more likely that there is possible worker exposure, as OSHA explains:
“Exposure to the virus or someone with Ebola may be more likely in certain sectors, including the healthcare, mortuary/death care, and airline servicing industries. Workers who interact with people, animals, goods, and equipment arriving in the U.S. from foreign countries with current Ebola outbreaks are at the greatest risk for exposure.
Precautionary measures for preventing exposure to the Ebola virus depend on the type of work, potential for Ebola-virus contamination of the work environment, and what is known about other potential exposure hazards.”
More specific guidance is provided for workers in some of these specific industries, including healthcare workers, airline and other travel industry personnel, mortuary and death care workers, laboratory workers, borders customs and quarantine workers, emergency responders, and workers in critical sectors (e.g. transportation, bus drivers, subways, pharmacists). Employers in these industries will need to quickly become versed in this guidance.
More generally, OSHA has clarified that, “Employers should educate workers about the hazards to which they are exposed and to provide reasonable means by which to abate those hazards.” In this respect, OSHA has released guidance to workers who believe they may have been exposed:
“If you think you have been exposed…
Any worker who thinks he or she may have been exposed to Ebola virus, including through travel, assisting an ill traveler or other person, handling a contaminated object, or cleaning a contaminated environment (such as an aircraft) should take the following precautions:
- Notify your employer immediately.
- Monitor your health for 21 days. Watch for fever (temperature of 101°F/38.3°C or higher), muscle pain, headache, sore throat, diarrhea, vomiting, rash, and other symptoms consistent with Ebola.
- Seek medical attention if you develop any of these symptoms.
- Before visiting a health care provider, alert the clinic or emergency room in advance about your possible exposure to Ebola virus so that arrangements can be made to prevent spreading it to others.
- When traveling to a health care provider, limit contact with other people. Avoid all other travel.”
In light of this new guidance, employers who do not fit within one of the industries likely to be affected by Ebola should also consider releasing some communication to their workforce regarding Ebola precautions, including the information shared by OSHA above. Employers may also consider establishing guidelines that require employees to notify their employer if they think they may have been exposed to Ebola by traveling to one of the affected areas or by another means (e.g. caring for family member) and provide a confidential mechanism for doing so. At the same time, employers will want to be careful to abide by the mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act, including providing reasonable accommodations and keeping any medical information shared confidential.