|British Columbia Teachers, Federation (BCTF.ca) Occupational Disease Poster (used with permission).|
Friday, March 14, 2014
Can a Childhood Illnesses be considered an "occupational disease"?
Key “measles outbreak” into a news search engine (or ask Siri) and you will see stories from Canada, New Zealand, the US, Syria and many other countries about recent clusters of cases in schools and communities. Other search terms reveal similar results. The health concerns reported are often focused on kids but occasionally you see stories that include concerns for teachers, staff and other community members.
Every time there is a reported “outbreak” I get a lot of questions about the compensability and prevention obligations of employer regarding infectious diseases.
As every parent, caregiver, and early childhood educator knows, a child with a cold can easily pass on their illness to siblings, parents, nannies, caregivers and educators they come into contact. Considering colds alone, young children may contract 8 to 10 each year before they turn 2 years old (NIH) while older children get an average of 6 to 8 colds per year (Worrall, Common Cold, Can Fam Phys, Nov 2011; 57(11): 1289–1290). Given that the average cold lasts about 10 days, young children can spend a third to a quarter of their pre-school lives with a runny nose. Add to that other common childhood diseases like influenza, measles, and chicken pox and you might be forgiven for concluding that “children” are nature’s most perfectly designed vectors of disease.
In reality, however, limiting the spread of infectious diseases can be achieved through frequent, effective hand-washing, routine site hygiene and “distance” during illness. While inconvenient for parents, keeping kids home when they are infectious (in the case of colds, about five days after the cold symptoms begin) can be an effective strategy in preventing the spread of disease to other students, staff and the community. There is no vaccine (yet) for the common cold or norovirus, but vaccination is another effective strategy for protecting both the person immunized and the unimmunized population they are in contact with from serious illnesses like many seasonal flu strains, measles, mumps, and chicken pox.
Childcare centres, kindergartens and schools are obvious targets for preventing the spread of disease. Sadly, budgetary pressures may lead to actions that actually increase the potential for the spread of disease. Washrooms that are cleaned less frequently, hot water being turned down or off, and inadequate supplies for washing and drying hands may cost more in terms of work absences and the health of students, families and the community than any marginal savings that may be gained.
Is any of this a workplace health issue? Yes. It is easy to overlook daycares, preschools, tutoring centres and regular schools when thinking about workplaces but for the teachers, teaching assistants, early childhood educators, custodian and office staff, these locations are workplaces. And the owners, operators and school boards responsible for them have a duty to provide for the health and safety of all workers and other persons (including children) in the workplace regardless of the compensability of any particular case.
Many educators, other school-based staff, and cleaners contract illness in their workplace. Some file a claim with a workers’ compensation authority but many simply take two aspirin and a dose of personal sick leave. For illnesses that are common and active in the community, this is reasonable—it is as likely as not the disease was contracted in the community rather than the school. This does not remove or lessen the duty of the employer to provide a safe and healthy work environment. In the case of specific illnesses such as measles, mumps, chickenpox, norovirus, Fifth’s disease, etc. the teachers and other staff infected in a localized outbreak may be maybe entitled to workers’ compensation.
A few years ago, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation circulated the accompanying poster to all schools. It consolidated on a single page many of the illnesses law and policy have defined as occupational diseases that may be work-related for teachers. The list of diseases that may be related is long but it is far from exhaustive. In practice, very few cases are reported to WorkSafeBC or local WCB agency. This means that the lost wages and medical costs are being wrongly attributed and born to a greater degree by workers and taxpayers.
The direct message of the poster is simple: Don’t use sick leave for a work-related illness. The rationale for the message is even stronger and goes beyond considerations of who pays. Every unreported work-related illness is a missed opportunity to review the circumstances and protect workers and others from harm.
Next time you attend an immunization clinic or have to stay home with sick child, have a thought for the health of educators, staff and caregivers deserving of protection.