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The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is “a wake-up call” for HR professionals to take precautions with employees who travel to or are stationed in areas affected by the epidemic, says one medical expert.
“This is going to go on for a number of months,” said Dr. Robert L. Quigley, senior vice president of medical assistance, Americas region, for International SOS, a medical and travel security services company. Though he believes there is little chance of an Ebola pandemic, the increasingly global economy is raising the odds that U.S.-based travelers will come in contact with persons infected with the deadly disease.
“We’re dealing with an emerging marketplace” in Africa, said Quigley. Because of porous borders and the resilience of the Ebola virus, “it’s not impossible that your folks thousands of kilometers away [from the Ebola hot zone] will be exposed.”
Other medical and travel experts agree that HR professionals must monitor the outbreak closely.
“An employer needs to be vigilant,” said Michael J. Soltis, managing shareholder of the Stamford, Conn., office of the law firm Jackson Lewis. For example, he said, one question to continually be re-evaluating: “Is [the epidemic] changing or spreading?”
“I would dust off my pandemic plan” and ask myself: “How good is my crisis management team?” said Lisbeth Claus, Ph.D., SPHR, GPHR, professor of global human resources at Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management in Portland, Ore.
As of mid-September 2014, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were experiencing an Ebola epidemic, with cases also reported in nearby countries. More than 2,200 victims have been confirmed dead, and as many as 12,000 people have been infected. No infected persons were known to have brought the virus to North America inadvertently.
The disease does not spread among humans as readily as some ailments, such as the H1N1 influenza virus that killed more than 12,000 Americans in 2009, because Ebola is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, and not through the air. However, it is usually fatal and has taken root in the poorest nations, where sanitation and education are weak. Efforts to limit its spread have proven inadequate, and no effective medicine is available for widespread use.
HR professionals have a duty of care for all employees and must comply with health and safety laws requiring that workers be protected from threats such as communicable diseases. So even employers who are not sending workers to countries where the Ebola virus is established should keep tabs on the outbreak, say experts.
“This should be at the top of HR’s radar” when evaluating risks to employees, said David Hyde, owner and principle consultant of David Hyde & Associates, a security consulting firm based in Toronto.
He said he believes that Ebola is starting to affect expatriate assignments. Some employers are likely delaying or shifting planned postings, and organizations are withdrawing workers already posted in or near the hot zone. The thinking is: “When the region settles down, then we can send that person back.”
Any employee who passes through West Africa and who experiences symptoms of illness must be quarantined. Even the slightest possibility of infection warrants having the employee stay away from the office for up to 21 days, experts say.
If an employee refuses to travel to the Ebola hot zone for nonessential functions, an employer should bend over backwards to accommodate that request, experts advise. If he or she balks at traveling to another part of Africa, that might be a different matter.
Said Hyde: “Any employee has a right to refuse unsafe work or work-related functions. The degree to which it’s unsafe is a debatable point.”
Experts recommend workarounds such as revised itineraries for employees nervous about changing planes in airports near the hot zone, such as in Senegal.
Employers should recognize that the Ebola crisis presents a teaching moment. “HR needs to understand the threat that Ebola poses and needs to demonstrate that to their employees,” stated Hyde. Hyde and other experts recommend that HR professionals consult regularly with their travel security services vendors and that HR monitor websites with the latest information about the Ebola outbreak. These include sites maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and International SOS.
The experts recommend that HR maintain tight tracking protocols with employees who are traveling abroad—particularly those in Africa. And they urge that HR make all employees aware of developments in the Ebola crisis.
Claus noted that with HIV, avian flu, H1N1 and Ebola making headlines in recent decades, HR has frequently been forced to do a better job of planning for health emergencies and communicating with employees.
“We learn from every crisis,” she said. “And we are raising the bar every time.”
Steve Bates is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.
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