The outbreak of the Ebola virus throughout West Africa has caused concern to organisations throughout the world. Ebola is extremely infectious and attempts so far to control the spread of the virus have only been partially successful. The virus is contracted by a person through direct contact with body fluids. While symptoms include high fever, bleeding and central nervous system damage, a person may take 21 days to realise they have the virus. To date, over 4,000 people have died in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. A lack of isolation units, medical workers, and a lack of education about Ebola have all been blamed as reasons for the rapid spread of the disease. Moreover, the mortality rate of those who have contracted the virus is said to be well over 50%, and could potentially reach 90%. There is no known cure for the Ebola virus and cases outside of Africa have recently been reported. Organisations either with a presence in West Africa, or those who may have visitors or workers from West Africa (or who have just visited West Africa) have voiced concerns about the particular risks they may face from Ebola. In view of these concerns, what can and what should organisations be doing to prepare for Ebola from a health and safety point of view?
An often overlooked phrase within Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety “and welfare” of employees. This clearly extends beyond traditional health and safety focus areas such as providing a safe working environment; it also encompasses a duty to take steps to both warn about and, where necessary, protect employees from outbreaks of contagious viruses such as Ebola. However, section 2 of the 1974 Act (and other aspects of health and safety law) do not require organisations to take irrational or disproportionate action to protect workers from very remote risks (such as advising staff to wear masks or stay away from work en masse). Furthermore, health and safety law does not authorise screening or testing of certain workers from certain countries that could be viewed as discriminatory in the absence of government or expert guidance.
Guidance on Ebola in the UK
The HSE have yet to produce any specific advice regarding Ebola and no specific guidance has been given to organisations in the UK as to how to respond to Ebola’s potential threat. Indeed, the highly contagious nature of Ebola makes it hard to know what organisations can actually (and reasonably) do to prevent its’ spread. Whilst it is true that the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (“COSHH”) and general health and safety law principles could apply to all organisations in relation to Ebola, it is hard to envisage what a risk assessment or a staff questionnaire would look like for Ebola at any particular organisation, or how such documents could be effectively used in the event of an outbreak. The risk of enforcement action by a regulator for Ebola is therefore extremely low. Any action or inaction relating to catching an infectious disease at work (such as Ebola) is going to be very difficult to prove, compared to, say, catching legionnaires disease at work. Moreover, given that there have been such a small number of Ebola cases outside of West Africa, organisations may question if they can or should do anything to tackle the potential threat of Ebola being contracted at work.
Practical steps for employers
Organisations may still feel like they ought to do something in the face of concern by staff and the general public. High standards of cleanliness and infection control should always be in place at all organisations (particularly healthcare organisations) but the simplest additional practical advice to organisations about Ebola is to educate their workforce about the virus. Basic guidance issued by organisations for their workers should therefore centre around education for staff regarding what Ebola is (symptoms and effects) and how it can be spread, who to contact at your organisation if a person suspects they may have Ebola, and how someone can and should seek medical help (e.g. the nearest medical centre equipped to deal with Ebola). Staff and those coming into contact with any organisation should have a means of communicating concerns to the organisation in an open and transparent way, and without fear of stigmatization.
While the Ebola virus remains more of a potential than an actual threat to many organisations, steps to educate workforces and members of the public coming into contact with organisations can form a useful first stage in the prevention of the spread of the virus.
World Health Organisation http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/en/