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Friday, August 14, 2009

Employer Responsibility in the Flu Pandemic

The threat of the spread of flu this fall in the US is a major concern to infectious disease specialists. Healthcare workers are extremely apprehensive as the disease is beginning to spread and employers have not instituted adequate protections for workers.

In the US alone there have been 6,506 hospitalizations of H1N1 Flu patients. The CDC has reported that there have been 436 reported to date because of the novel flu infection. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a Phase-6 pandemic, the highest level of concern. Over 1,154 deaths have been reported worldwide.

The CDC has issued an Interim Guidance for controlling the spread of infection in healthcare facilities including hospitals, long-term care and outpatient facilities and other settings where healthcare is provided.

Healthcare workers have rallied to protest the firing of a co-worker who disclosed that a healthcare facility was not taken appropriate action to prevent the spread of flu at its work site. The major national unions in April 2009 warned in a report that employers were not taking adequate precautions to protect healthcare workers.

Most recently a task force of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) charged with the responsibility of making recommendations on how to protect workers from the H1N1 flu heard evidence that actions by employers could reduce the spread of the disease. It was reported the use of N95 masks provided 75% protection against lab-confirmed flu.

Workers' remedies from the residuals of the illness have now been limited. The Federal vaccination compensation program will shield the vaccine makers from liability claims. Employers will be protected against civil law suits by the exclusivity provisions of the workers' compensation system. Workers' Compensation does not encompass a roll in prevention of disease. OSHA has alerted employers to take action, but cannot compel them to do so.

It is time for employers to act to prevent unnecessary illness and death in the workplace. Simple educational and enforcement actions by employers will go along way to protect workers from the consequences of this unprecedented pandemic. While time is short and the clock is ticking away as the US flu season formally approaches, time still remains for employers to act and mandate protocols and procedures that will prevent the spread of the disease and will save lives.

For more on workers compensation and the flu pandemic visit the Workers' Compensation Blog.

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