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Ebola Control & Prevention in the Workplace

November 12, 2014

After the spread of the Ebola virus into the United States, many employers have wondered how best to handle and proactively prevent the disease from affecting their workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced earlier this year that it was "considering the need for a standard that employers establish a comprehensive infection control program and control measures to protect employees from infectious disease exposures to pathogens that can cause significant disease." At this time, however, there are no OSHA regulations that specifically address the Ebola virus and a final rule will likely not come soon due to the extensive rule making process that OSHA must follow.

In the meantime, OSHA has issued interim guidance for protecting workers whose work activities are conducted in an environment that is known or reasonably suspected to be contaminated with the Ebola virus (e.g., due to contamination with blood or other potentially infectious material). These general OSHA guidelines are not intended to cover those workers who have direct contact with individuals with Ebola.

Given the absence of a rule specifically addressing Ebola, OSHA stresses that precautionary measures for preventing exposure to the Ebola virus depend on the type of work, potential for Ebola virus contamination of the work environment, and what is known about other potential exposure hazards.

OSHA recommends that employers: 

  • Follow recognized and generally accepted good infection control practices, and continue to satisfy applicable requirements in the Personal Protective Equipment standard and the Respiratory Protection standard.
  • Use proper personal protective equipment and good hand hygiene protocols to avoid exposure to infected blood and body fluids, contaminated objects, or other contaminated environmental surfaces.
  • Require employees who may be exposed to hazards to wear gloves, wash hands with soap and water after removing gloves, and discard used gloves in properly labeled waste containers.
  • Provide face and eye protection, such as a full-face shield or surgical masks with goggles, to workers who may be splashed, sprayed, or spattered with blood or body fluids from environmental surfaces where Ebola virus contamination is possible. Aprons or other fluid-resistant protective clothing must also be worn in such situations to prevent a worker's clothes from being soiled with infectious material.
  • Train workers about the sources of Ebola exposure and appropriate precautions. Employers should also train any workers required to use personal protective equipment on what equipment is necessary, when and how they must use it, and how to dispose of the equipment.
  • Provide training as required by the OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens standard to workers who may be exposed to blood or other potentially infectious materials, including providing information about how to recognize tasks that may involve exposure and the methods to reduce exposure, including engineering controls, work practices, and personal protective equipment.

OSHA's "Protecting Workers during a Pandemic" Fact Sheet also provides general guidance about principles of worker protection that may be useful during a widespread disease outbreak.

Healthcare employers need to continue following the OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens standard. Generally, healthcare workers must use proper personal protective equipment and other infection control measures to avoid exposure to infected blood and body fluids, contaminated objects, or other contaminated environmental surfaces. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for U.S. healthcare workers caring for patients with Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever include wearing:

  • Surgical scrubs or disposable garments
  • Dedicated washable footwear
  • Double gloves
  • Boot covers that are waterproof and extend to at least mid-calf or leg covers
  • Single use fluid-resistant or impermeable gown that extends to at least mid-calf or coverall without intergraded hood
  • Disposable N95 or powered air-purifying respirator
  • Disposable full-face shield
  • Surgical hoods to ensure complete coverage of the head and neck
  • A waterproof apron that covers the torso to the level of the mid-calf should be used if EHF patients have vomiting or diarrhea

Finally, while OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard does not apply to the Ebola virus itself, employers may be required to comply with the standard when chemicals are being used for cleaning and disinfection of the work environment.

If you have any questions about Ebola control and prevention in your workplace, please contact Kurt Graham at | 616.608.1144 or your Clark Hill Labor and Employment Law attorney.

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