RECENT SWINE FLU (H1N1) OUTBREAK PROMPTS REEVALUATION

Although some of the media hype surrounding the novel H1N1 Flu, or "Swine Flu", has died down, the virus continues to infect more and more people each day. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control's May 28, 2009, press briefing, influenza-like illnesses are increasing in Region 10, which includes Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare reports that as of Friday, May 29, Idaho has had 17 confirmed cases of Swine Flu, 466 negative reports, and 5 reports currently under investigation.

Last week, an employer-client called with an interesting question related to Swine Flu. An employee wanted time off from work because the employee was concerned that the employee would be exposed to Swine Flu. The employee did not have any flu-like symptoms, but rather wanted time off because of the possibility of contracting the virus.

What are an employer's obligations when it comes to Swine Flu or other outbreaks or pandemics? Certainly if the employee exhibited flu-like symptoms the employee should not come to work. But does an employer have an obligation to protect its employees from Swine Flu?

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), an employer does have an obligation to provide a workplace free from serious hazards and to comply with OSHA rules, regulations and standards. An employer, however, does not guarantee the safety of its employees. Although the legal obligations of an employer with respect to Swine Flu may be limited, practical concerns such as absenteeism and workplace productivity should motivate an employer to take certain steps to ensure its employee health policies meet or exceed federal guidelines.

In order to balance the employer's obligations under OSHA with the practical difficulties of dealing with a viral outbreak or pandemic, an employer should review its employee health "best practices" and ensure that they comply with federal health recommendations. An employer should review not only its literature regarding hygiene and sick leave policies, but also its facilities and supplies (such as bathrooms, tissues, hand sanitizers, etc.). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has information about Swine Flu on its website specifically designed for employers (http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/business/). For example, the CDC recommends that sick employees stay home for 7 days after symptoms begin or until the employee is symptom-free, whichever is longer, in order to prevent infection. The CDC also publishes posters regarding hand-washing and covering your cough that employers can post in employee workspaces.

Along with updating employee health best practices, an employer should also educate its employees about the best practices. The Center for Disease Control provides a PowerPoint presentation for employers on its website that includes general information about Swine Flu, symptoms, and everyday steps that can be taken to protect employee health. A meeting or presentation for employees regarding health best practices can decrease the risk of employees contracting and spreading Swine Flu and other viruses.

The best approach for an employer to take regarding Swine Flu or other viruses is to update employee health "best practices" information and educate employees about those best practices. Check the CDC's and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's website weekly for updates on Swine Flu and other viruses and for valuable information specifically targeted to employers.