With developments on the spread of the Ebola virus hitting the headlines, and world leaders calling on the international community to “wake up” to the crisis, how can employers ensure they are suitably prepared for an Ebola outbreak?
The World Health Organisation has advised that the introduction of Ebola into the West is unlikely, given the sophisticated health systems in place. So far, the message is “don’t panic”. However, some commentators predict that an Ebola outbreak in the UK may occur at some point, and so should employers be thinking about what control measures they should have in place to limit the risk of infection and the virus spreading?
Employer duties to protect employee health
Employers have a legal obligation to take reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees at work. Many organisations already have bespoke or standalone health and safety policies that they may need to review. Contemporary guidance for employers regarding the Ebola risk, provided by government agencies, should also be followed and explained to employees.
Employers should conduct risk assessments to consider the likelihood and impact of an Ebola outbreak and identify areas of business practice that could increase their vulnerability. They should take reasonable measures to mitigate identified risks, such as imposing restrictions on non-business-critical international travel and instead conducting international meetings via video conferencing.
Employers whose staff have been in an area where Ebola is, or has been, present, or who have been in contact with someone who has been in such an area and is suffering symptoms consistent with the virus, should strongly consider asking them to remain out of the office until the all-clear has been given for their return. If such employees become unwell in the office with recognised symptoms, employers are advised to ensure they are immediately isolated, for example in a meeting room, before calling on public health services for assistance. It would be sensible to have designated people in the organisation who are familiar with the agreed procedure for containing the spread of the virus.
Business continuity plans in the event of an Ebola outbreak
If a business’ greatest asset is its people, employers need to think carefully about how to deal with potential absence following an outbreak, or how to manage staff working remotely. Employers with organised workforces should consider whether or not to involve employee forums or trade unions in planning and communication with employees.
It is important to assess the critical activities of the organisation, and decide who is carrying out those duties. Who can step into those roles if the affected employees are unable to attend work? What skills and expertise are required to undertake these activities? Can absences be managed through internal resourcing, or should external contractors be placed on standby? Bear in mind that those businesses may themselves be under similar pressure.
Compiling an inventory of staff skills that are not utilised within employees’ existing roles may be helpful to support efforts for short-term redeployment, along with more emphasis on cross-training of skills across different employees.
Reliable and effective employee communication protocols are necessary to keep employees informed of developments. This includes ensuring that employee contact details are up-to-date (including next-of-kin details), in case employees are taken ill at work and need to be quarantined or transported to health facilities.
Employers also need to ensure that their people can continue working following an Ebola outbreak. The effectiveness of IT and communication facilities to support significant numbers of staff working remotely should be stress-tested.
Employee relations and policies
Relevant HR policies should be reviewed, in particular those relating to sickness absence and dependent leave. Employers will need to decide whether, in the event that employees need to stay at home, they will be required to take paid annual leave, unpaid leave or special paid leave. Any changes will need to be clearly communicated to employees. Employers should also be wary of staff who may take advantage of the situation to shirk their duties at work. There should be a disciplinary process in place for dealing with such employees, at the same time as being alert to those who unreasonably refuse to attend work through fear of contracting the virus.
Which sectors are most likely to be affected by an Ebola outbreak?
This issue affects all employers, although there are certain sectors where the risks of employees are elevated – for example, industries where workers are more likely to come into contact with bodily fluids such as in healthcare, cleaning, transport and logistics, and waste management. The news of air cabin cleaning staff at LaGuardia airport in New York going on strike in protest at the lack of provision of protective gear has brought this into sharper focus. Businesses with an international presence or those with employees who travel frequently are also at particular risk – for example, those in the travel and leisure industry, and in financial services. They also need to plan how to manage operations in their international locations where there has been an Ebola outbreak.