One of C2’s longstanding government contracting employers recently won additional work from its government client and was in the process of hiring about a dozen employees in Florida and Georgia. As we were helping the client walk through various onboarding issues, such as payroll dates, employee benefits, leave benefits, etc., out of the blue the client asks “for the new employees in Florida, what should we do about the Zika virus?” Unfortunately, this was not the first client (and will not be the last) to ask this question.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika Forest in Uganda. In 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected and since then, outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Before 2007, at least 14 cases of Zika had been documented, although other cases were likely to have occurred and were not reported. Because the symptoms of Zika are similar to those of many other diseases, many cases may not have been recognized.
Zika can be spread through mosquito bites, sexual intercourse, from a mother to her unborn fetus, and likely through blood transfusions, as well. The symptoms of Zika can include fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain, headache, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). But often people infected do not show symptoms or show only mild symptoms. Symptoms can last up to a week, and usually people infected do not get sick enough to go to the hospital. To date, there is no known vaccine for the Zika virus.
The most recent outbreak began in early 2015 in Brazil and then spread to other countries in South and North America. On February 1, 2016, the World Health Organization declared Zika and the spread of the disease to be a “public health emergency of international concern,” and advised that Zika would likely spread through the rest of North America by years’ end. Around July 29, 2016, The Florida Department of Health confirmed the first four cases of mosquito-to-human transmission of Zika in the continental U.S.
From a medical standpoint, Zika poses the biggest risk to pregnant women. When the virus is transmitted to unborn children, it can cause microcephaly (born with a small head) and other severe fetal brain defects and has been linked to problems in infants, including eye defects, hearing loss, and impaired growth. Now that cases have developed here in the United States from direct contact with mosquitos, American workers are understandably concerned and are turning to their employers for answers.
B. OSHA – Protecting the Workplace
Lacking available treatment or a vaccine, and knowing the virus can cause severe birth defects to an unborn child, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued some safety tips that employers can incorporate into their workplace for employee safety. OSHA has also provided interim guidance for Protecting Workers from Occupational Exposure to Zika Virus.
OSHA recommends that employers take the necessary precautions to protect their employees from mosquito bites. In particular, employers located in the southeastern United States, where the Zika-carrying aedes aegypti mosquito is most commonly found, especially Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, should be on heightened alert.
OSHA’s recommendations include the following:
- Educate Your Employees. Educated employees will better understand the risks associated with Zika and they are more likely comply with work rules regarding their safety. The Center for Disease Control also provides helpful educational resources (gov).
- Provide Mosquito Repellant. Since those employees working outside are at greatest risk of mosquito bites, purchasing mosquito repellant for your employees and asking that they wear it while working outside will help. Employers should also retain a pest control company to spray mosquito repellant on their company’s property and instruct employees on how to spray repellant on their clothing; ensuring they spray only on the outside of clothing and use soap and water to remove repellant after work. Employees should be encouraged not to wear strong cologne or perfume when working outside.
- Remove All Stagnant Water from Outside Your Facility. Remove any containers or depressions, if possible, that may accumulate water from or around your work site. Mosquitoes tend to congregate near standing water.
- Provide Proper Clothing for Your Employees. It is recommended by Public Health officials and other employees to wear light colored, long sleeve shirts and pants when working in areas where mosquitoes are present. If the presence of mosquitoes poses a safety threat to your employees, OSHA may require such clothing under its personal protective equipment (PPE) regulations.
- Perform Work Inside. For employees who perform work outside, try to relocate them to indoor location areas.
- Adjust Work Schedules to Avoid Dawn and Dusk Hours. Mosquitoes are the most active during these times. If at all possible, adjust employees’ outside work hours to avoid these times. Document Your Actions. As a safety precaution, it is best to document all safety issues in writing. This will prove beneficial when defending any potential future claim relating to safety concerns in the workplace.
For additional information on traveling to Zika-infected areas and protecting yourself and your workers, review the following documents from the CDC and OSHA:
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – provides information about Zika when traveling http://bit.ly/1Qq5Iow.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA NIOSH Fact Sheet) provides further details on protecting workers from the Zika Virus http://bit.ly/1ppMhmF.
C2 provides strategic HR outsourcing to clients who want to develop optimal workforce strategies and solutions to allow them to be more competitive and profitable. C2 blog posts are intended for educational and informational purposes only.