Dealing with Contagion in the Workplace | DCR Workforce Blog

Dealing with Contagion in the Workplace

Contagion in the WorkplaceMost businesses pride themselves on the fact that the world is their oyster, as they operate from multiple global locations. But, there is a downside to this. When business operations require extensive travel between locations, the possibility of exposure to infections and diseases also increases; as does the difficulty of quick diagnosis and effective treatment. If infected with a highly contagious disease; asymptomatic people travelling from place to place are incubating it in their own bodies, allowing the disease to spread unchecked.

The world has seen its fair share of large scale disease, both natural and man-made. The 2001 terrorist attacks with Anthrax killed 5 people and infected 17 others; and in the final analysis, the total cost of containment exceeded $1 billion. Then we had the pandemic H1N1 Swine Flu scare in 2009 which infected humans, instead of pigs. At this moment, Ebola is causing panic waves to spread amongst people across the world – with schools being closed, and people quarantining themselves and stocking up on bio-hazard protective gear.

What do such scares of contagion mean for workplaces? What happens if someone in the office returns from any country on the African continent, probably missing the nearest case of Ebola by hundreds of miles? Colleagues may be just as scared of contracting Ebola from the traveler as if he/she was actually diagnosed with the disease. As a result, people want to steer clear of the individual. They start acting as if they could contract it by sharing the same air in a room. In reality, it is passed only through blood and other bodily fluids. An employer may not be able to control the unfounded fear psychosis. Whether the threat of disease is real or not, such reactions from workers could affect worker and business performance.

Employer’s Duty

The employer holds the responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all workers. This requires the adoption of all measures needed to minimize the possibility that workers will contract an infection from co-workers who have been exposed to potentially deadly diseases. At the same time, asking the business traveler to take time off (and be quarantined) could make the employer liable to charges of meting out differential treatment, based on someone’s physical condition. To avoid the stipulation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which prohibits excluding a worker from the workplace for health or safety reasons unless they clearly pose a ‘direct threat’, employers must be sure that they follow the guidance provided with regard to the disease and its ability to spread contagion. Every employer should::

  • Have a pandemic policy as part of an overall disaster recovery and business continuity policy.
  • Educate the employee of any specific symptoms which precede the onset of the disease, and advise the worker to be alert for evidence of the appearance of any of these symptoms.
  • Accommodate requests for support and assistance from the employee until the incubation period ends without incident.
  • Accommodate any ill employee, following general medical guidance regarding contagious periods and best practices to avoid the spread of the disease. Protect the rights of the affected employee, providing time off under the applicable government mandates and corporate policies. The most important thing to remember is that the illness should be treated according to established corporate policies and government requirements. Consistency is key.
  • Accommodate requests for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
  • Protect the employee’s medical privacy.

Employers are legally prohibited from taking certain measures:

  • They cannot impose any medical tests on employees unless it is possible to prove that the tests are job-related or necessitated by business needs – as required by law.
  • Open discussion on the issue of contagion cannot be suppressed. The rights of co-workers to discuss this issue are protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) – as these discussions are viewed as a ‘concerted, protected activity’. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also protects the rights of workers to openly discuss issues that could adversely impact workplace safety.
  • Companies cannot restrict their employees’ plans to travel to a country which poses definite risk of contagion. It is better to fall back upon your current travel policy which is uniformly applicable – and get the individual to follow it.
  • Workers cannot be terminated or penalized for expressing a genuine safety concern. The workers may even refuse to report to work for fear of contracting a disease if the potential exposure is real and immediate. However, reactions not based on a legitimate threat may be dealt with in the usual manner – with notices and disciplinary action – if they adversely impact business operations.

To avoid such contingencies, employers should take preventive actions. Establish a pandemic policy and ensure that employees understand the policy and the procedures to be employed to enforce it. Review travel policies. Educate employees on safety protocols, possible hazards, probable symptoms, and available prophylactic measures for prevention of disease. Encourage open communication of any concerns – as workplace safety is of primary importance for all. Finally, seek the advice of legal and medical experts. Ask their assistance in establishing policies that protect the health of employees while supporting the company’s business interests.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.