Future Focus: Disease at Work

By Dave Patel Nov 1, 2002
HR Magazine, November 2002

The more than 2,400 cases of West Nile virus—and nearly 120 deaths—reported in the United States this year through September have made headlines, but West Nile is not the only disease that could become a challenging health problem in the U.S. workplace. Outbreaks of malaria and tuberculosis have been reported in the United States this year.

The West Nile virus has probably been in the eastern United States since the summer of 1999, according to scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but it began spreading rapidly this past summer.

Anthrax, bacteria known to be a danger to farm animals, became a huge public health issue when anthrax spores were used as a form of terrorism in 2001. More than 20 people became ill, five died, and no suspects or motive have been established for the attack. The simplicity of the attack—spores hidden in mail—created concern about vulnerability to bioterrorism.

Outbreaks of West Nile and malaria are troublesome because they are hard to contain; these insect-borne diseases can spread rapidly. Communicable diseases such as TB, caused by bacteria that can spread through the air, are especially worrisome in an age of rising mobility.

The specter of malicious intent adds another dimension to the spread of disease. The potential for new anthrax attacks or for smallpox attacks has led the federal government to step up vaccine production. Such diseases not only represent big public health issues but also could involve employers in significant ways. Anthrax, after all, hit people in the workplace last year, as postal employees handling mail came in contact with the spores on the job.

Many employers are unprepared to deal with these new challenges, but they could look to longstanding policies on another public health concern—HIV/AIDS—to begin formulating policies and working with public health officials.

The United Nations estimates that 40 million people worldwide live with HIV/AIDS. Almost three-fourths of HIV/AIDS cases come from sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to tremendous personal and social costs, there are huge workplace implications stemming from this pandemic. In South Africa, as much as 25 percent of the workforce could have some form of HIV/AIDS by the end of this year, costing companies millions of dollars through absenteeism, sickness payments and loss of skilled workers.

In many countries, the private sector is stepping in to fill a void left by governments unwilling or unable to address the problem. DaimlerChrysler’s South African subsidiary provides free antiretroviral drugs to infected workers and their families to manage AIDS among employees and dependents. Ford Motor Co. won an award from the CDC in 2000 for its AIDS education and prevention program in South Africa.

Employers and human resource professionals may need to learn from such examples of employer involvement. Recognition of risks, training and education, disaster planning in case of bioterrorism, and effective relationships with public health officials could all fall to HR.

For more information on emerging issues, visit SHRM Workplace Trends. To learn more about West Nile virus and other diseases, visit the CDC’s web site.

Dave Patel is the manager of workplace trends and forecasting at SHRM.

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