Swine flu measures could be legal minefield, experts warn

Imposing travel bans or quarantines to protect employees from a swine flu pandemic could land HR in serious legal trouble as they would ignore privacy and employment law, experts have warned.

A failure to consult properly on travel restrictions, putting staff in quarantine or imposing medical care or vaccinations at work could mean companies facing claims for breaching individuals’ privacy, according to law firm White & Case.

International employment lawyer Don Dowling warned multinational employers in particular to act fast to involve existing overseas health and safety committees and worker representatives in plans to deal with any swine flu outbreaks, or in preparing for a pandemic, to check employees were properly consulted.

Dowling said: “There are some serious legal implications for multinational employers to consider, including involving existing overseas health and safety committees and worker representatives, providing medical care/vaccinations in the workplace, and imposing travel bans and quarantines, all while weighing these precautions against stringent privacy and employment laws.”

He added that with the global outbreak of swine flu employers must show a keen interest in keeping staff healthy and in containing the spread of the disease, to keep business operations running and to minimise liability exposure.

The disease has already reached the UK, with the first two cases confirmed yesterday and another possible 23 cases being investigated in Scotland.

The Department of Health has warned that a quarter of UK employees could contract swine flu, which could cost the economy £1.5bn a day, according to figures obtained by Personnel Today yesterday.

The sum could be significantly reduced if companies acted now to implement provisions for staff to work at home, including supplying laptops and back-ups of contacts lists, a Federation of Small Businesses spokesman said.

“Employers should keep in touch with the Department of Health, their GP practices and ensure contingency plans are in place to maintain contact with their banks, suppliers and customers,” he said.

Ben Willmott, senior public policy advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), added that employers had to act fast to prepare for a swine flu outbreak. “In case of a pandemic, employers should formulate clear advice for staff on the symptoms of the virus and the importance of staying at home and seeking medical advice at the earliest opportunity.”

On Monday the Department of Health published its Pandemic Flu: Guidance for Business which outlined what HR functions should do if the outbreak takes hold in the UK.

The department’s advice to employers included displaying signs telling those infected not to enter the building and reminding them of the importance of basic hygiene, considering alternatives to direct meetings, reducing interaction by staggering lunch breaks, and asking staff to maintain a distance of one metre from other people.

The guidance said: “HR policies may wish to reflect the impact of a pandemic on departments and be sensitive to staff needs during times of caring for family members or even bereavement.”

The death toll in Mexico, where the swine flu outbreak originated, has reached 159.

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