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Virus Outbreaks Become A Workplace Concern

An increasing number of businesses, universities and other types of organizations are beginning to ask workers would they would do if exposed to a deadly virus. The threat has become a reality as the Ebola death toll rises and authorities warn the virus could infect 10,000 people per week by the end of the year globally.

“A pandemic touches all parts of a business, potentially,” says Randy Nornes, executive vice president at consulting firm Aon Risk Solutions. “This is an extremely complex topic. When a pandemic comes up, one thing a lot of companies find is a lot of connectivity is missing inside the organization.”

According to an article on Yahoo Finance, worry over Ebola in the United States vastly exceeds its actual presence here; there are only a handful of cases among a population of 320 million. Statistically, that’s almost too minuscule to measure. Yet experts warn the virus could spread rapidly under the right conditions, and missteps by state and federal officials have already shown how the virus can evade aggressive efforts to contain it.

In general, employers are legally obligated to safeguard the privacy of employees’ medical information. But they’re also obligated to inform the government about possible Ebola cases, because they represent a public health risk. Some workers at risk of Ebola willingly disclose the information, but others want privacy, to avoid the stigma associated with the virus. Figuring out what a company must or should disclose is a case-by-case matter fraught with legal implications if it reveals too much, or too little.

Some universities are concerned that students will globetrot during Thanksgiving and end-of-year breaks, potentially bumping into people infected with the virus and bringing it back to campus. Most schools have procedures for dealing with infectious diseases, such as meningitis, but the fear factor regarding Ebola could prompt new measures—including overreaction.

As scary as Ebola seems, it has precedent. Many organizations developed plans for dealing with a pandemic during the H1N1 scare in 2009 or the SARS outbreak in 2002. In those instances, the biggest problem at most companies turned out to be mass abseentism among workers who got sick rather than the rapid spread of infection.