The Workplace Is Not Immune: Zika Guidance for Employers

By Ashley Kelley Aug 25, 2016
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In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) jointly issued new guidance aimed at protecting workers from occupational exposure to the Zika virus. 

The "Interim Guidance for Protecting Workers from Occupational Exposure to Zika Virus" report is a direct reaction to the growing outbreak in the United States and in South and Central America. The guidance is designed to provide employers and workers with information on preventing occupational exposure.

The virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys and was subsequently found in humans in 1952. It can be transmitted by infected mosquitos and through exchange of blood or bodily fluids during childbirth or sexual activity.

Common symptoms of Zika virus infection include fever, rash, joint pain, red or pink eyes, and, in some cases, muscle pain and headache. Of greatest concern is the link between pregnant women infected with the virus and a serious but rare birth defect. There is no vaccine to prevent the virus and no specific treatment for individuals who become infected.

On Feb. 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika a "public health emergency of international concern." WHO estimates that 3 million to 4 million people across the Americas will be infected with the virus within the next year.

Although the potential impact of the Zika virus is not limited to any specific industries or types of employees, the guidance specifically addresses outdoor workers, mosquito control workers, health care and laboratory workers, and business travelers.

Outdoor and Mosquito Control Workers

The guidance recommends that employers take proactive steps to prevent or minimize outdoor workers' exposure to Zika. This begins by informing workers about the risks of Zika exposure and educating them on ways to protect themselves. 

Employers should provide approved insect repellants (at employer expense) along with other tools, equipment and supplies. They should provide workers with, and encourage them to wear, clothing that covers their hands, arms, legs and other exposed skin. Standing water (e.g., in tires, buckets, cans, bottles or barrels) should be eliminated whenever possible to reduce areas where mosquitoes can lay eggs. 

And employers should be prepared to accommodate or reassign workers who express concern about the risks associated with mosquito bites and the Zika virus. Employers of mosquito control workers should instruct them to wear additional protection when entering areas with dense mosquito populations.

Health Care and Lab Workers

Employers should instruct workers to follow consistent infection control and biosafety practices and support them in these efforts, including by having procedures in place to avoid direct contact with blood and other potentially infectious materials. 

Workers should be instructed to avoid bending, recapping, or removing contaminated needles or other contaminated sharps from syringes or other devices and to dispose of them in closable, puncture-resistant, leak-proof, and labeled or color-coded containers.

Business Travelers

The guidance advises employers with workers traveling to Zika-affected areas to follow CDC guidance and warnings. Employers should consider allowing flexibility in requiring travel to affected areas for workers concerned about exposure, especially pregnant women. 

Advise workers who have traveled to affected areas that even if they do not feel sick, they should take steps to prevent mosquito bites for three weeks after their return so they do not pass the virus to the local mosquito population.

Educating the workforce on prevention is an important employer response. Information on protecting against mosquito transmission should include what type of clothing to wear and the benefits of insect repellant. Employers should also educate employees on the other methods of transmission and assure them that the situation is being closely monitored by public health agencies.

Given the significant media attention surrounding the spread of the Zika virus and the practical reality that the virus may pose threats, employers should treat any request for leave due to the fear of exposure seriously and take action to educate, counsel and maintain flexibility with employees.

Zika infections are spreading, and workplaces are not immune. Proactive attention to the potential employment issues related to the virus may prove productive in preventing an outbreak from a human resources perspective. 

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Ashley Kelley is a Partner at the U.S. law firm of Womble Carlyle. Republished by permission from the World Federation of Personnel Management Administrators.

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