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OSHA, Ebola and the Employer: What is my Obligation?

Labor and Employment Alert | October 16, 2014
By: John K. Baker

The subject of the Ebola virus has reached all corners of the earth and concern about health and safety has been and will continue to be front page news for the foreseeable future. It has affected international and domestic travel, caused hospitals and healthcare facilities to review protocol, and hulking linebackers to quake. Ebola has also led to picketing at NYC’s Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports by cleaning crews. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, for the issue to arise in the context of labor and employment relations. It’s critical that all employers know about the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s take on Ebola so that they can take measures to reduce the risk of Ebola, as well as the risk of an OSHA citation or retaliation complaint.

According to OSHA, any employee who performs a task involving close contact with symptomatic individuals or in environments that are contaminated or reasonably anticipated to be contaminated with infectious body fluids are at risk of exposure to Ebola. In response to this ever-changing public safety issue, OSHA has launched an Ebola web page that provides information about Ebola and guidance for employers as to how to protect workers.

The guidance shows that OSHA considers that the existing Bloodborne Pathogens standard covers an employee’s potential exposure to the Ebola virus. Further, in situations where employees are exposed to bio-aerosols containing Ebola virus, employers must also follow OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard, OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment standard and the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which requires employers to keep their workplaces free of recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm to workers.

Employers which expose employees to skin, eye, mucous membrane, or parenteral contact, i.e. needlesticks, bites, cuts and abrasions, with bloodborne pathogens or other potentially infectious materials shall establish a written Exposure Control Plan designed to eliminate or minimize the exposure. This plan must contain a list of all job classifications in which all or some employees may be exposed and a list of all job functions that are performed by employees in these job classifications. The plan must be reviewed and updated at least annually and whenever necessary to reflect new or modified job functions which affect occupational exposure. The OSHA Fact Sheet provides more specific and practical guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting, the use of protective equipment, and waste disposal.

For now, employers should make a determination as to whether its employees are exposed or potentially exposed to the Ebola virus, and immediate and appropriate safeguards should be reviewed or put in place. Taking action now will not only help prevent illness among employees, but will help the employer keep OSHA away from its door.

For more information on OSHA or labor and employment matters, please contact John K. Baker (610.782.4913, bakerj@whiteandwilliams.com) for further assistance.

This correspondence should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult a lawyer concerning your own situation and legal questions.
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