OSHA Gets Into the Act on Ebola

by Adele Lois Abrams on Nov. 09, 2014

Employment Occupational Safety & Health Employment Health Care 

Summary: Ebola outbreaks remain in the news on a daily basis. Now OSHA has issued guidance on addressing Ebola issues in the workplace. Employers can be held responsible and fined for failing to satisfy their general duty to mitigate workplace safety and health hazards.

    For the past few months, the lead story in every radio newscast and on line report has involved the potential threat from the Ebola virus in the United States. At this writing, multiple states have both foreign visitors and residents who either traveled or worked in West Africa, or who had “close personal contact” with such persons, in quarantine at hospitals or in “self-isolation” in their homes. Two American health care workers contracted Ebola while treating a visitor who later died; both of them were able to recover. The federal government has been urged to take greater steps to prevent the spread from foreign travelers and health care workers, and New Jersey and New York announced more stringent quarantine plans, then rescinded them.


    While the risk to most Americans living and working in the U.S. is likely to be low, Ebola will not be leaving the headlines anytime soon. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has gotten into the act and provided information to employers on management of Ebola threats in the workplace. Failure to follow OSHA’s recommended protective actions could lead to sanctions (citations and civil penalties) under the agency’s “General Duty Clause,” Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, which requires employers to keep workplaces free from “recognized hazards” that could cause death or serious bodily harm, as well as other standards discussed below.  


    Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever caused by a virus, and transmitted by contact with blood, sweat, semen, vomit, diarrhea and other bodily fluids, and the virus can live on surfaces for a period of time. It is fatal in 50-90 percent of cases, although some novel treatments used on the infected American nurses proved effective.


    While most workplaces outside of the health care setting are not at especially high risk for individuals with Ebola, employers should still be aware of safe work practices. It is not uncommon for first aid to be provided to injured workers at worksites and if such a worker were to carry Ebola, it could readily be transmitted if proper precautions are not followed. Although few workers would be expected to have traveled recently to West Africa, they could have close personal contact with those in the health care community or emergency responders who transport or treat such individuals, or could have traveled in proximity to those infected on planes, trains, buses or subways, or used improperly cleaned utensils in restaurants.


    OSHA now has a webpage on the Ebola issue, and points to the need for hazard recognition. While Ebola is not generally spread through casual contact, symptoms can appear abruptly, within 2-21 days after exposure to the virus. Therefore, supervisors should be familiar with the symptoms and be prepared to take action by isolating workers and notifying authorities if someone has a high fever or other symptoms consistent with Ebola. OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens (BBP) standard (29 CFR 1910.1030) covers exposure to Ebola as well as other communicable diseases.

Anyone in the workplace who is designated to provide first aid or medical treatment should be trained on the BBP “universal precautions” and the proper BBP protectiveequipment should be available at the worksite. Employers can also be cited under OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (1910.134) and the Personal Protective Equipment standard (1910.132) if they fail to have proper PPE on site and neglect to do a written PPE hazard assessment. Of course, any chemicals (e.g., bleach) that are used in cleaning up potentially infected waste are subject to the requirements of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (1910.1200), and workers handling them must be trained on the hazards and mandatory PPE, as indicated on the label or safety data sheet.


    OSHA’s guidance also focuses on control and prevention. This means that employers must follow generally accepted good infection control practices, ensure that workers dealing with infectious fluids wear gloves and wash with soap and water once they’ve removed gloves, and dispose of contaminated gloves in proper containers. Among other guidance that OSHA has issued is a guide to cleaning and decontaminating Ebola on surfaces in non-healthcare settings. Seehttps://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA_FS-3756.pdf


    Finally, OSHA expects that employers will train workers about the sources of Ebola exposure and appropriate precautions. Such training should be documented, and should cover the use of PPE, when and how it must be used, how to dispose of the equipment, and also any engineering controls or work practices that supplement the use of PPE. OSHA also stresses the worker rights aspect, and employers must educate workers about the hazards to which they are exposed.


    Also remember that, under Section 11(c) of the OSH Act, employers cannot take adverse action against employees who become ill with Ebola, particularly if it was contracted on the job (in which case, it becomes an OSHA “recordable” event for injury/illness log purposes). In fact, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, recently sent a letter to President Obama and Senate leaders urging, among other actions, that the government prohibit retaliation or discipline against workers who contract Ebola or who are placed under quarantine or restriction, and maintenance of wages and benefits for such workers.


    See OSHA’s comprehensive Ebola topics page at: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ebola/index.html.

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