Zika virus and business travel : six duty of care actions for employers

A worker sprays insecticide in a campaign against mosquitoes carrying  the Zika virus in Montevideo, Uruguay. Xinhua News Agency/REX/Shutterstock
A worker sprays insecticide in a campaign against mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus in Montevideo, Uruguay. Xinhua News Agency/REX/Shutterstock

As evidence of the effect of the Zika virus grows, employers must address their responsibilities. Dr Jonathan O’Keeffe explains.

The Zika virus continues to receive global media attention following its threat to overshadow the Rio Olympics in Brazil, and now as fears mount regarding its spread in parts of South-East Asia, including Malaysia and Singapore.

With new figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) showing that more than 70 countries have reported evidence of the transmission of the Zika virus, a company’s duty of care to educate and prepare its travelling employees is as important as ever.

Organisations should ask the following questions:

  • From an employer perspective, are your business travellers and expatriates who are travelling to, and living in, Zika-endemic countries prepared?
  • Are your pregnant business travellers and expatriates aware of the risks?
  • Does your company have an up-to-date travel policy and access to expertise facilitating decisions for certain business travellers to be able to decline assignments in Zika-endemic regions, or for expatriates to voluntarily relocate where appropriate?

Background to the Zika virus

The Zika virus is transmitted primarily by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, but can also be transmitted by sexual contact with an infected person. Symptoms occur in only 20% of cases. These include fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle pain and headache.

In pregnant women, Zika has been linked to an increased incidence of microcephaly and other nervous system complications in newborns, and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in adults. At this time, there is no vaccine available to prevent infection.

Duty of care

In short, an employer’s duty of care means they must take reasonable precautions to protect their employees from foreseeable risk of injury, disease or death. UK legislation, including the Corporate Manslaughter Act of 2008, requires companies to address employee health and safety risks. It means senior company executives may ultimately be held responsible for death or disability if a judge believes management has failed to adequately prepare employees to address work-related health and safety risks.

This duty of care continues to exist when employees are sent to work in other jurisdictions, either on a short-term basis or as part of a longer-term arrangement, such as an international assignment or secondment. It may cover a worker’s travel arrangements to or from work on a day-to-day basis while working abroad. It may also include a duty to ensure the employee’s safety while in transit.

The issue has been brought to the fore as global security risks become greater and in the wake of medical threats, such as Ebola and Zika virus. As business travellers increasingly visit higher-risk areas, an employer’s duty of care becomes more important.

So what does it mean to be prepared, and how much preparation is enough?

Recruiters and employers alike should note that while Zika does not pose any significant health threat to people residing permanently in the UK, business travellers should be made aware of its risks and symptoms. This is particularly important for staff who may be trying to conceive.

Most travellers exposed to Zika through contact with infected mosquitos will have no major health consequence. However, the potential neurological effect on an unborn child requires women intending to conceive (and their partners) to take special added precautions. Although the risk of an adverse outcome is low, the result may be tragic

Six things you should do to mitigate the risk of the Zika virus

From a HR perspective, and to mitigate the risk of a company’s conduct being found to be unreasonable, employers and recruitment agencies should do the following:

  1. Question whether or not a trip to an affected area is really necessary, particularly if the employee is pregnant, or trying to fall pregnant. Adequately assess the risk before travel. Disruption and stress can be minimised if your workforce clearly understands the risks and has a plan to protect themselves.
  2. Prepare and educate workers about the locations they will be working in. Zika is very serious, but it may be a distraction in the light of very high rates of malaria or dengue fever. Other local risks, such as injury caused by a road traffic accident, should be addressed in context.
  3. Give adequate support and advice to business travellers returning from areas with active transmission of the virus. A fever on arriving home should prompt a call to a doctor at your company assistance provider.
  4. Provide employees with access to a 24-hour health and security assistance helpline to allow support for medical questions, or to facilitate the provision of emergency assistance at a time when a worker’s usual points of contact would not be able to respond to an incident.
  5. Adopt systems to keep employees informed of changing health and security risks as they evolve, regardless of how remote they may be from the office. The picture is never static.
  6. Triangulate advice from institutions such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and World Health Organisation with your global assistance provider to understand the relevance and implications of different travel health alerts for your company and workers.

Dr Jonathan O’Keeffe is regional medical director, medical services, northern Europe, at International SOS, a global medical and travel security assistance company.

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