Ebola: Managing the health and safety risks to your employees

The World Health Organisation announced on 25 October 2014 that the number of cases of ebola had risen to 10,141 as the outbreak continues to spread around the world. Eight countries have currently been affected by the virus and as of yet there is no approved vaccine.

What can UK based employers do to manage the risk?

Employers based in the UK are subject to extensive health and safety statutes and regulations. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 section 2, specifies the duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees. This includes a duty to warn of the risks of contracting and protect employees from outbreaks of contagious diseases.

Travel to work in the worst affected West African countries

A risk assessment should be undertaken in relation to employees who are required to travel to one of the West African countries where the risks of contracting the disease are raised. This could include advice as to practical steps to minimise the risk of coming into contact with bodily fluids and will include maintaining high standards of cleanliness and infection control.

If the risk is assessed to be significant, advice could be sought prior to travel from medical experts with knowledge of the physical conditions where the virus is of increased risk of being transmitted.

UK personnel being sent to West Africa to assist with the crisis include members of the military, engineers and water experts. They will all be well advised to take extensive precautions to minimise the risk of contracting the virus.

Risk inside the UK

The risk of contracting ebola inside the UK is currently low. The UK Health and Safety Executive has not yet produced any specific guidance to employers on how to protect employees from contracting ebola (with the exception of guidance published in June 2005 for those employees working with human remains in funeral services including embalming and exhumation).

Public Health England advises that the chance of contracting the virus remain low and the UK has “robust, well-developed and well-tested NHS systems for managing unusual infectious diseases”.

Four NHS Hospitals are on standby to deal with cases including the Royal Free Hospital in Northwest London which treated William Pooley, a British Nurse who contracted the virus in Sierra Leone in August and has now fortunately made a full recovery. The other three hospitals on standby are Royal Liverpool University Hospital, Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals Foundation Trust and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust.

Common sense steps for employers to take include issuing written guidance to workers regarding how ebola can be spread and the symptoms and effects of the virus. Further advice could include details of who to contact at your business if an employee suspects that they may have contracted the virus and the address of the nearest hospitals which are on stand by and are well equipped to deal with patients suffering from ebola.

Currently, inside the UK, the risk of infection from the ebola virus remains much more of a theoretical rather than an actual threat. However, practical steps taken to educate and inform employees can form a useful starting point to assist in the prevention of the spread of the virus on a global wide basis.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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David Egan

Partner - Joint Head of Environment

I am a Partner at DWF, providing clear, expert advice on matters relating to crisis management, environmental incidents and fatal accidents.