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The Ebola Epidemic: Preparation v Panic

With the Ebola epidemic continuing to dominate national press, employers with operations in high risk sectors and territories are grappling with how to allay employee concerns and implement strategies to deal with an outbreak and its consequences.  

UK employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their work force and this includes undertaking a risk assessment to identify whether any factors leave employees vulnerable to infection risk. Government advice remains that the risk of Ebola to the general public is very low, and therefore such a risk assessment is unlikely to identify a tangible risk for most UK employers. However, employers with highly mobile workforces, operations in West Africa or operating in sectors where workers may come into contact with bodily fluids (e.g. healthcare or waste management) should be alive to risk factors and consider measures to combat them. These may include limiting travel or implementing travel embargos to high risk territories, demanding a set period of ‘home leave’ after such travel and/or taking steps to monitor and improve levels of hygiene in the workplace, ensuring that all risks of contagion are mitigated. A well drafted policy will also include communication channels to keep employees informed of the health risks, notifying them of symptoms to be aware of and other practical advice which mirrors government advice and literature.

As a separate exercise, many employers are considering crisis management strategies to deal with the unlikely event of a UK Ebola outbreak. Business continuity would inevitably be affected by high absence levels and therefore such plans may include identifying the key individuals who are pivotal to the business and others who may be able to interchangeably undertake their roles. Such strategies may also involve investing in systems and technology which enable employees to home-work such as video conferencing, social media platforms and remote document access.

HR Policies including sickness, absence, emergency and dependant leave should be reviewed to determine the cost to the business of multiple periods of leave and whether there is flexibility to require employees to take annual leave as opposed to sickness absence in circumstances where they are not physically unwell. Alternatively such policies could include provisions requiring that employees refrain from taking annual leave if their presence is business critical. Such policies should also include sanctions for employees who take unauthorised absence in response to such a crisis or malinger. Employers will also need to effectively manage employee anxiety and fear surrounding taking public transport or entering public spaces. This should obviously be handled sympathetically and according to government advice.

Employers will obviously need to manage the tension between taking adequate steps to address any health risks presented by Ebola and creating unnecessary panic amongst the work force. A national epidemic of the scale seen in West Africa is thankfully unchartered waters for UK employee legislation and relations and most likely to remain so.  

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