Employers: How Prepared Are You for Ebola?

by Morgan Lewis
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Rapidly changing circumstances raise workplace questions.

The Ebola epidemic in 2014 has already been confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the worst in history. The extent of this outbreak is still unknown, as reports of Ebola transmissions continue not only in West Africa but also (for the first time in history) inside U.S. and European borders. Because of the potential risks in a globalized economy, the U.S. government, its various agencies, and employers alike are now scrambling to ensure that appropriate rules and procedures are in place to prevent any further exposure to the disease. Reactions have been swift and fluid as officials learn more about the presence of the virus in West Africa and beyond and as they develop strategies to respond. Among the federal agencies that have already taken action, the CDC has recently issued “tightened” guidance for proper personal protective equipment (PPE) in the healthcare industry, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance covering a number of workplace safety issues. The situation is changing rapidly and further action is expected by the U.S. government, especially after the White House announced the appointment of an Ebola Response Coordinator (or Ebola Czar).

In the United States, employers are facing challenges and questions on how to best address a wide variety of issues, including workplace safety, travel policies, employee relations, leaves of absence, and refusal to work requests. Whether responding to Ebola or other emergencies, employers should use protocols that include emergency preparedness and response plans, such as assigning responsibilities, assessing the hazard, conveying effective communications, and implementing security measures to address those key issues. In the meantime, here is what you need to know right now.

OSHA’s Interim Guidance

OSHA quickly released interim guidance for workers within the United States that focuses on those in industries most likely to be affected by the Ebola crisis:

  • Healthcare workers
  • Airline and other travel industry personnel
  • Mortuary and death care workers
  • Laboratory workers
  • Border, customs, and quarantine workers
  • Emergency responders
  • Employers in critical infrastructure/key resource sectors, such as bus drivers and pharmacists

Employers in these key industries must evaluate how they currently respond to emergencies and if those preparedness and response plans are adequate or need modification, particularly when assessing hazards specific to their jobsites (OSHA lists industry-specific information on its website). These employers should explore ways to proactively combat and contain the virus, such as obtaining PPE, implementing cleaning and sanitation procedures, and evaluating whether engineering controls, such as pressurized glass, respirators, and decontamination devices, should be used. If an employer happens to be a hospital or similarly licensed accredited facility, state licensing and other laws as well as accreditation bodies may require those organizations to activate emergency preparedness plans. Employers should communicate with their workers and train them about sources of Ebola and any required precautions.

On its newly released website dedicated to Ebola, OSHA has asserted jurisdiction over potential worker exposure via several regulations already in place. Most notably, the Ebola virus has been classified as a “bloodborne pathogen” under OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard,[1] which explicitly covers pathogens like hepatitis B virus (HBV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Bloodborne Pathogens standard imposes a range of requirements on employers whose workers can be reasonably anticipated to contact blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM), such as saliva and semen. Covered employers must train employees, prepare exposure control plans, and use “universal precautions,” engineering and work practice controls, PPE, and housekeeping measures to contain the virus. Employers must also offer medical evaluations, blood tests, and follow-up evaluations after any worker is exposed to blood or OPIM. The standard contains many other nuanced requirements, including carefully documenting compliance measures. Given the complexities of the regulation, employers are strongly encouraged to seek legal advice if workers could anticipate exposure and to seek emergency, medical, and legal advice if any work-related exposure to blood or OPIM occurs.

Beyond this standard, OSHA has reminded employers that—when undertaking precautions for contact-transmissible diseases and any bioaerosols containing the Ebola virus—they must comply with OSHA’s (1) Respiratory Protection standard[2] if respirators are used on the job and (2) PPE standard[3] wherever PPE is used as a precaution. Finally, OSHA reiterated that it may issue citations against employers under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970[4]—OSHA’s “catch all” provision, which is used if no other regulation applies and where an employer allegedly fails to keep its workplace free of recognized hazards that can cause death or serious bodily harm to workers.

CDC Involvement

The primary U.S. agency embroiled in the fight against Ebola is the CDC. Of the many steps taken by the CDC in this effort, highlights of the latest guidance and advice are outlined below.

“Tightened Guidance” on PPE for U.S. Healthcare Workers

Following widespread criticism after two nurses contracted Ebola while treating a patient in Dallas, Texas, the CDC released on October 20 “tightened guidance” for PPE used by healthcare workers while caring for patients with Ebola. According to the CDC, three guiding principles control: (1) Employees must receive rigorous and repeated training to fully understand how to use PPE, (2) no skin can be exposed when PPE is worn, and (3) a trained monitor must be present to supervise all workers as they put on or take off PPE. The CDC also described “different options for combining PPE to allow a facility to select PPE for their protocols based on availability, healthcare personnel familiarity, comfort and preference while continuing to provide a standardized, high level of protection for healthcare personnel.” Among the recommendations for monitoring the safe use and removal of PPE, the CDC provides advice on step-by-step PPE removal, as well as disinfection of gloved hands.

In addition to PPE, the CDC further underscored other critical prevention activities to respond to the Ebola risk, including (1) prompt screening and triage of potential patients, (2) designating site managers who have the responsibility to ensure proper implementation of precautions, (3) limiting personnel in the isolation room, and (4) effective environmental cleaning. Employers in the healthcare industry should be aware that the CDC has highlighted management responsibility “to provide resources and support for the implementation of effective prevention precautions” and that management “should maintain a culture of worker safety in which appropriate PPE is available and correctly maintained, and workers are provided with appropriate training.” For more information and advice for healthcare workers, visit the CDC's website.     

Health and Travel Advisories

Given the severity of the risk that Ebola poses, the CDC has issued health and travel alerts, which it will continue to update as the situation develops. In the wake of various governors, particularly those from New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, having announced plans to quarantine health workers traveling from West Africa who treated Ebola patients, the CDC has also updated its guidance on October 27 regarding the monitoring and movement of persons with potential Ebola exposure. The guidance applies to anyone who recently traveled to West Africa and may have been exposed to Ebola and includes newly created tiered categories of risk, ranging from high to no risk and based on exposure to Ebola. Depending on the risk category, the CDC recommends that state and local health authorities isolate travelers who are exhibiting signs of illness or conduct “active” or “direct active” monitoring of signs and symptoms of Ebola for other at-risk individuals. 

Health officials will make at least daily contact with these travelers, requiring travelers to disclose (1) temperatures and any other Ebola symptoms, such as headache, diarrhea, and vomiting, and (2) intent to travel out of state. For individuals who are under direct active monitoring, the CDC recommends that discussions with the individual include plans to work, travel, take public transportation, or go to busy public places to determine whether these activities are allowed.

Employers, and particularly employers with an international presence, should closely monitor these CDC travel advisories,[5] as well as advisories published by the World Health Organization (WHO).[6] Employers should evaluate their own travel policies and alerts against those published by the CDC and the WHO.

Protecting Employees from Impacted Regions from Harassment and Protecting the Confidentiality of Medical Information

Like the CDC, employers must respect workers’ privacy—and, particularly, the confidentiality of their medical information pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—and they must also comply with rules and guidance from OSHA, the CDC, and other agencies. Employers should balance their need to ensure workplace safety with their obligation to avoid unnecessary or overbroad medical inquiries, which are prohibited by the ADA. Of course, if an employee is exhibiting symptoms of Ebola exposure, it is appropriate to urge him or her to see a doctor. However, the decision to send an employee for a medical exam or to request medical documentation should be based on objective information—not unfounded fears that may or may not be grounded in reality. As an example, without some reason to believe there has been Ebola exposure, it could be risky to request medical information simply because an employee visited an Ebola-impacted region.

Employers should also take caution and consult legal counsel before they send home an employee suspected of Ebola exposure. The decision to remove an employee from the workplace for medical reasons must based on objective belief that the employee may present a direct threat of significant, imminent harm to himself or herself or others. These decisions should not be based on rumor or unfounded concerns.

To address these issues, employers should train human resources employees about the CDC guidance so they can understand the medical and scientific realities of Ebola exposure and, therefore, be prepared to respond appropriately if employees express concern about a coworker believed to be at risk for Ebola exposure. Similarly, employers should take all necessary steps to ensure that employees who are, or who are perceived to be, from regions impacted by Ebola do not experience harassment based on race, national origin, or any perceived medical condition.

HIPAA

The Ebola situation has also introduced some Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) interpretation questions for employers that are Covered Entities—such as healthcare providers—but also for those that sponsor a Covered Entity group health plan. HIPAA protects an individual’s protected health information (PHI), which includes, for example, medical, demographic, and other identifying information. HIPAA restricts Covered Entities from disclosing PHI about a worker or plan participant, except in limited circumstances. To date, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has not indicated that the Ebola crisis will change its enforcement or interpretation of HIPAA. The HIPAA Privacy Rule and Security Rules, as amended by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, will still apply to Covered Entities. Although narrow exceptions exist for use or disclosure for certain public health purposes, this exception will likely only apply in limited situations for limited organizations. Covered Entities should review their policies and procedures to determine if and how infectious diseases, particularly Ebola, are addressed. They should also train their Privacy Employees—workers who act on behalf of the Covered Entity—to continue to protect an individual’s PHI. Before disclosing any PHI, Covered Entities should exercise caution and consult with legal counsel to confirm that a use or disclosure will not constitute a HIPAA violation.

Labor Relations

In light of the media furor from various healthcare and service workers’ unions regarding Ebola risks to workers, employers should also expect to receive collective bargaining demands related to training, adequate safety procedures, and protective equipment and medical services provided to exposed employees, potentially including demands for leave (whether paid or unpaid). Employers should be proactive, therefore, in reaching out to union representatives of healthcare workers to develop protocols on how best to handle these types of issues, and, given the labor laws, should not act unilaterally, even if well intentioned and even if the to-be-implemented protocols are favorable to employees. Employers should also review their current collective bargaining agreements for any clauses or language requiring the employer to implement procedures related to infectious diseases or the safety of their workers. Finally, even nonunion workers can exercise rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to engage in concerted activity for their mutual aid and protection if workers fear their safety is not adequately protected. A refusal to work because of safety concerns related to Ebola, therefore, could be protected under the NLRA, and employers should carefully consider this issue prior to implementing discipline to employees for refusing to work. 

Immigration

In coordination with the CDC, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a set of travel restrictions[7] involving additional screening and protective measures for travelers from Ebola-affected countries at U.S. ports of entry. Travelers to the United States who are arriving directly or indirectly from Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea will undergo enhanced screening that includes the following:

  • Identifying and interdicting travelers from the Ebola-affected countries.
  • Isolating these travelers from the rest of the traveling public while the individual completes a questionnaire and contact information form.
  • Medically trained personnel will take the traveler’s temperature. If the traveler has a fever or other symptoms, or may have been exposed to Ebola, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will refer the traveler to the CDC for a public health assessment. The CDC will then determine whether the traveler can continue to travel, should be taken to a hospital for further evaluation, or should be referred to a local health department for further monitoring.
  • Encouraging the traveler to seek healthcare at the first sign of any potential illness.

If CBP discovers that a traveler has been in one of the three countries in the prior 21 days, he or she will be referred for additional screening, and, if necessary, the CDC or other medical personnel in the area will be contacted pursuant to existing protocols. The enhanced screening is in place at the five U.S. airports that account for 94% of travelers flying to the United States from Ebola-affected countries. The airports are John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International, Washington Dulles International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, and Chicago O’Hare International. DHS has authority under existing law to deny admission to individuals who represent a public health threat.

Given the rapidly changing circumstances, employers are faced with many labor and employment challenges to consider.


[1]. 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1030.

[2]. 29 C.F.R. § 1910.134.

[3]. 29 C.F.R. 1910.132.

[4]. View the act here.

[5]. View the advisories here.

[6]. View the advisories here.

[7]. View the restrictions here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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