The sad news that a Spanish nurse has contracted the Ebola virus is shocking but perhaps not unexpected.  It was inevitably only a matter of time before the virus spread beyond West Africa.  With the World Health Organisation predicting further Ebola cases among medical staff in Europe and the US, what steps should be employers be taking to protect their staff and businesses?

It is not so long since employers in Spain (and around the world) faced the ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’ pandemics.  At the time, we recommended that, at a very minimum, employers closely monitor sickness absence levels across the workforce so as to identify unusual or unseasonal trends.  It may also be difficult for employers to obtain information about potentially infected employees.  In Spain, for example, privacy rights and data protection restrictions do not generally allow doctors to disclose the reason for sickness absence.  Also, some Spanish hospitals are having to deal with employees refusing to attend work as they do not believe their health and safety can be guaranteed.  It can then be a difficult call for the employer concerned whether to take disciplinary action or consider hiring in temporary staff (assuming they could be found, which is not a given).

The debates about the source of the infection in Spain and whether the nurse and her colleagues were sufficiently protected will continue for some time, but there is – at least at this stage – no need for companies to implement disaster recovery programmes or indeed be concerned about their businesses being shut down as a precautionary measure.

There are, however, a number of practical steps that employers – both in and outside Spain – can take now so that they well-prepared in the event of further outbreaks of the virus nearer to home:

  • Have up-to-date information on the current position on the Ebola virus.  Government departments should be regularly updating their advice.  Plans may need to be modified if the virus spreads. Access to information will be essential as will communication of it to staff.
  • Keep employees updated on the latest position and what is being done to maintain the business and protect them to avoid unnecessary gossip, fear and disruption in the workplace – inform staff about known symptoms, what steps they can take to reduce the risk of infection, what the Government says on particular points, etc.  Use notice boards and intranet where possible.
  • Put in place contingency plans to deal with the implications of the Ebola virus – work out the real risks to the business in order to identify a response.  Consider possible absence levels and disruption to supply and distribution chains.  Should you stock-pile now, just in case?
  • Carry out a risk assessment to identify any possible measures for reducing the spread of the Ebola virus at work.  Put in place policies if necessary to reduce the risk of the virus spreading at work, for example immediate exclusion of employees with symptoms, delayed return of those who have travelled to or via virus hot-spots, increased cleaning of offices, etc.
  • Identify key roles and transferable skills – consider which staff could be retrained or relocated if necessary.
  • Consider modifying employment contracts to ensure that there is the necessary flexibility to continue to run your business in the event of high levels of staff absence.  For example, the power to require staff to work flexibly in other roles to ensure business continuity, to suspend or exclude staff if they are suspected of having the Ebola virus or to cancel holiday if there are staff shortages.
  • Review availability of alternative labour resources – high levels of staff absence may affect the ability to cope with workloads, so consider a draw-down arrangement with a relevant agency, on an exclusive basis if feasible.

There are of course ideals but since Ebola is lethal and terrifying in a way which swine flu and bird flu were not, they may not be feasible in every case.  Any such arrangements would be likely to break down in practice if there were a serious outbreak in or near your company, but there is still much to be said for being able to tell your staff that HR has the matter under consideration, if not control!