Monday, May 11, 2009

Novel H1N1 Influenza A [swine flu] and Workers' Comp

The novel Influenza A/H1N1, also called “swine flu”, is in the news and may be a serious threat to human health but what, if anything, does this have to do with workers’ compensation authorities? Any statutory agency concerned with compensation and prevention has at least three aspects of its role to consider.

Like every other employer, it takes people to carry out the tasks and duties of the agency and workers’ compensation organizations have an over-arching responsibility for workplace health and safety. The beginning stages of an outbreak may not be the ideal time to be thinking about that role but it is critical that employers set expectations and communicate, in a timely and clear way, information and expectations to their employees. Questions will arise like “what do I do if I come in contact with someone who likely has the flu?” and “What should I do if a fellow staff member is showing flu-like symptoms?” are bound to arise. If you haven’t thought about these issues in advance, getting a coherent program in place is not only prudent, it is generally your responsibility as an employer. A good example of employee/contractor occupational health communication on this topic is the NASA notice on its website. In their policies discussed in a May 1 teleconference , the following actions were discussed
– “Send home” policies
– Liberal use of telecommuting [for 5 days]
– Self identification following travel to swine flu affected areas

Many workers’ compensation agencies have either a formal or informal prevention mandate. WorkSafeBC, for example, is the regulator, promoter and inspectorate for occupational health and safety in the province. Resources like the web page on Influenza which outlines the employer responsibility and the slideshow/video which provides practical guidance on proper hand washing are great examples of what needs to be done. The specific announcement for healthcare workers and employers regarding respiratory protection is a particularly useful and direct document for those who are among the most likely to be exposed to this biological agent.

Then there are the workers’ compensation claims that may arise. During the early stages of an outbreak, the nexus between the work and the illness may be easily and conclusively shown. Contact with the indentified index case or one of the chain of isolated cases or clusters where that contact arose in the course of and out of the duties related to the job are likely enough for a workers’ compensation claim to be accepted. Quarantine of otherwise healthy individuals may be advisable and even enforced by a health authority but it misses the essential requirements for a workers’ compensation claim.

Once any disease becomes community based and that direct connection between work and the development of disease is lost, the likelihood of a claim for compensation diminishes. The common cold is rarely an acceptable work-related illness because it is, well, common—in the community. The current novel Influenza A/H1N1 is not yet at that stage but there is a chance it could become community based where the risk of contracting the disease is about the same for everyone.

The latest Influenza A/H1N1 may not be the next serious pandemic virus but it already serves as a wakeup call for employers and workers’ compensation authorities to prepare and test plans for a local cluster in the office to a community outbreak or a full blown pandemic.

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