Kate Brearley, head of employment at international law firm Stephenson Harwood LLP, comments on what measures employers and HR teams should consider taking regarding Ebola: “With the international spread of the Ebola virus in the news and prompting health professionals to test procedures to deal with a UK outbreak, employers should be assessing their own preparedness to protect employees’ health and safety at work and to ensure business continuity.

“Together with monitoring guidance from government agencies like the Health and Safety Executive, employers should consider taking the following practical measures:

  • Conduct a risk assessment to identify areas of standard business practice which would make the workplace vulnerable in the event of either an isolated incidence of Ebola or a wider pandemic, and take reasonable mitigating measures such as appropriate restrictions on international business travel and making use of technology such video conferencing and Skype to conduct business meetings.
  • Review health and safety policies and workplace hygiene practices.
  • Review contingency plans for staff absence arising from employees or dependants suffering from symptoms. Employers should think about making arrangements to cover the absence of key staff either internally or from external contractors.
  • Consider how to deal with employees who refuse to attend work through fear of contracting the virus from colleagues or in the belief that they are unreasonably exposed as a result of their particular duties. There are already reported instances of staff refusing to work due to the lack of provision of protective gear – the airplane cabin cleaning staff at La Guardia airport in the US being one example. Employers operating in certain sectors, such as facilities, healthcare or waste management may therefore need to consider more seriously the threat of strike action from concerned workers.
  • Review the effectiveness of IT and communication facilities to support home-working. Systems should be adequately stress-tested to hold up to significant numbers of employees working remotely.
  • Implement reliable and effective employee communications protocols to inform and advise employees on developments in the health risks, and ensure that employee emergency contact records are up-to-date.
  • Review relevant HR policies. In particular, sickness absence and dependant leave policies should be revisited. Consider whether more flexibility will be required, and ensure that relevant policies and any changes made to them are clearly communicated to employees. Employers will need to decide whether, in the event that employees need to stay at home, they will be required to take paid annual leave, unpaid leave or special paid leave. Employers should also be wary of employees who may take advantage of a fearful or cautious work environment to shirk their duties at work, and decide on how to deal with them under disciplinary policies.
  • Be prepared to enforce absence and to ask employees to stay at home if necessary to avoid the spread of infection until they and/or colleagues have been medically cleared to return.

“There is a lot for employers to think through, and those with organised workforces may need to consider whether to involve their respective employee forums or trade unions in planning and communicating advice effectively to employees. Some employers will already have plans in place but they should still be kept under review to ensure that the contents are appropriate in the current circumstances.”