Does your organization have a contagious illness policy?, October 14, 2014

Does your organization have a contagious illness policy?

The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus should remind employers they are required to provide employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Employers need to create and implement policies and procedures to protect their employees while minimizing their impact on normal business activities.

According to Employment Conditions Abroad International, however, a respected provider of international HR data and services, which recently surveyed 189 companies, only half of multinational companies have policies in place to deal with international contagious illnesses.

In addition to having substantive business continuity plans in place employers should have up-to-date policies and practices relating to workplace safety, specific to the epidemic or pandemic in question.

Each epidemic or pandemic has its own dynamics and challenges. Employers’ policies should be tweaked, on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors such as the manner of transmission, whether a vaccine exists, mortality rate, and other similar factors. In addition to such specific considerations there are a number of contentious issues, which generally always need to be addressed.

Human rights discrimination

An employer has to tread carefully when taking special precautions such as excluding certain employees from the workplace. Measures should only be taken based on hard scientific facts, published by a credible health authority such as the International Centre for Infectious Diseases or Health Canada.

In the case of Ebola, were it to spread to Canada, employers should only exclude employees who have been to West Africa or otherwise have been exposed to patients who are contagious.

During the SARS scare a few years ago, some employers attempted to exclude certain employees of Asian origin. Exclusions not based on scientific facts, directed toward a particular race, would likely constitute racial profiling, which is prohibited under Canadian human rights legislation.