The Ebola strain: how employers should manage the risks of potential disease outbreaks

The current major Ebola outbreak in West Africa was first reported in March, but with confirmation of positive tests of doctors and nurses in the USA, Ebola is very much an issue attracting international attention. Closer to home charities are seeking donations and assistance to help control and fight the disease abroad. Thinking as an employer, could Ebola impact on your organisation and are there steps you could take to reduce or prevent operational risk or risk to your staff from infectious disease outbreaks?

Aside from the challenge of responding to uncertain market or operating conditions or how a business continuity plan could be put in place to deal with an incident such as an infectious disease outbreak, there are certain key legal considerations for employers to factor in.

While there does not appear to be any significant likelihood that Ebola will become an epidemic within the UK, having a contingency plan for Ebola or other matters such as a repeated pandemic flu is advisable.

As we saw most recently in the UK with an outbreak of swine flu in 2009, employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of employees. The key to starting to comply with any health and safety obligation is to perform a risk assessment. A risk assessment should be carried out to identify if any individuals or sites would be most at risk of infection and to assess whether any improvements to hygiene practices are required. Consideration to change of working practices, such as home working, may be necessary. Risk assessments for alternative working arrangements may also be necessary to ensure a safe working environment for employees.

If an outbreak was to occur, an employer's duty to protect the health and safety of its employees would extend to keeping them informed with regular updates from the government and relevant health organisations. This may involve travel advice or hygiene procedures. Employers should ensure that effective communication systems are in place to allow necessary updates to be available to employees.

In addition employers who have an international presence and/or who have employees who are required to travel, both abroad and through travel hubs should look at whether any safety steps can be taken. The most obvious example would be if an employee was asked to travel to a country or region known to be affected by Ebola then the necessary risk assessments should be carried out. Advice should be sought from government agencies and the employer's corporate travel insurer, the latter being key in order to ensure compliance with conditions of the policy and extent of cover available.

It would also be advisable that travelling employees be briefed on any restrictions or practices that they must observe when abroad, along with what to do and who to contact if they become ill. As with the business continuity planning, ensuring the health and safety of the employee is paramount in order to reduce the risk to their health and the risk to your operations.

If an employee was to refuse to come to work due to a risk of infection then they would most likely be in breach of contract and face the prospect of summary dismissal. If an employee refused to undertake travel because of a risk, would you discipline the employee or dismiss for that reason?

We can all hope that this particular disease is controlled and managed and does not pose a risk to employees and employers, but it would be advisable to review both business continuity plans and travel arrangements. The world is becoming a smaller place and with it, these forms of risks are becoming greater and closer to home than ever before.

For more information please contact Rory Byrom on 0141 227 9418 or rory.byrom@harpermacleod.co.uk