With developments in the Ebola outbreak in the news most days, employers may be thinking about how this virus might impact their workplace and the ways in which they can protect their employees.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF) is the disease caused by infection with the Ebola virus. Initial symptoms include fever, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. Symptoms appear abruptly, from two to 21 days (but most typically eight to 10) following exposure.

It’s important to remember that although Ebola causes a very severe illness, it is very difficult to contract. The virus is transmitted person to person through direct contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids—and not through casual contact. And until a person develops EHF symptoms, they are not considered to be contagious.

One of the most important things employers can do is to ensure that employees have access to reliable, accurate information from agencies such as the Government of Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or your provincial health department.

If your organization has employees who are travelling for work or for personal reasons, monitor travel advisories. Currently, the Government of Canada has recommended avoiding all non-essential travel to Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Your organization may choose to formally ban business travel to these affected countries. If avoiding travel to affected areas is not possible, employers should provide travellers with Ebola-specific guidance, including conduct and health precautions to take in the region and symptom information and guidelines for monitoring their own health upon leaving the affected region. Travellers from West Africa to destinations around the world should also expect increased health screenings at airports and other border crossings in order to identify individuals with fevers or other symptoms.

After returning home, travellers to the affected region should carefully monitor their health for 21 days and report any change in temperature or other symptoms to their healthcare provider immediately, by phone. The Public Health Agency of Canada has published monitoring guidelines on its website. Many health regions have designated specific hospitals for individuals who have potentially been exposed to the virus and require care for a fever or other symptoms: Check the protocols in your area. Depending on the type of work an organization does, employers may require employees returning from these specific locations to remain at home, whether or not they are experiencing symptoms, until they can provide a doctor’s note certifying their fitness to return to work.

While Ebola is very unlikely to develop into a pandemic, your organization should have a strategy for business continuity in the event of a pandemic. Many employers are already familiar with pandemic preparedness or business continuity planning, having put robust plans in place during the SARS or H1N1 outbreaks in past years. If your organization does not have a plan in place, or hasn’t reviewed your plan recently, now would be a good time to do that. Your plan should include the following:

  1. a strategy for alternate work arrangements, especially for functions or roles identified as critical to your organization; your strategy should include a review of the technological capabilities required to support these arrangements should employees need to work remotely or at an alternate site, or access teleconferencing as an alternative to travel;
  2. a contingency strategy for critical suppliers or customers, should they become unavailable; and
  3. a communication strategy for both internal and external stakeholders that includes a variety of vehicles for communicating your key messages and continual updates, as well as a mechanism to collect feedback.

Additionally, it is always a good idea to promote good hygiene practices, like proper handwashing or the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers to prevent the spread of infection. Encourage employees who are sick to stay home and avoid getting others sick.

Ebola is likely to remain a big story in the media for some time. Although this is certainly not the first outbreak of the virus, the current Ebola outbreak is the worst to date. And while the risk of an outbreak in Canada is very low, it’s important to stay informed and keep employees updated as the situation changes.

Kim Siddall is an associate vice-president with Aon. She has more than 20 years of experience in the health and benefits industry. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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