Vaccinations and the Workplace
As of February 4th, there had been more than 140 cases of measles diagnosed in the U.S. While these cases fall far short of the total number of cases diagnosed in 2014, so far, it is more than double the monthly average for 2014. In addition, more cases of measles were diagnosed in 2014 than in all the preceding years of the twenty-first century combined.
This outbreak has created a major controversy surrounding the question of vaccinations. The focus of that controversy has been on vaccinating children, but the question is equally applicable to adults. Should adults get vaccinated for contagious diseases? The answer to that simple question is, “Yes” as long as there is not serious medical risk for an individual. A more difficult question is, “Can employers require that employees be vaccinated?” As detailed in a recent article, the answer is a resounding, “No!”
That raises a serious question – “What can employers do to protect their businesses in the face of highly communicable diseases?” The answer is to develop a communicable illness plan. Such a plan needs to address both prevention and response.
- Publish the company communicable illness plan with the rationale for the plan and the importance to the company and the employees of taking action to prevent the spread of communicable illnesses
- Develop and publish recommended employee practices, such as hand washing, aimed at preventing the spread of a disease
- Encourage vaccinations where appropriate – such as for the annual flu season. This is an area that must be addressed with a well-founded approach since employers cannot require employees to get vaccinations. Nor can employers take any action against employees who decline to get vaccinated. Two techniques that are acceptable are:
- Employers can pay for vaccinations that employees get on their own
- Employers can arrange for vaccinations to be given at work – on an “opt out” but purely voluntary basis
- Monitor the CDC and state or local health agencies for communicable illness status/news and ensure that employees are aware of the risk of infection
- Provide the facts (from CDC or other similar authority) on vaccination risks and benefits
- Establish a trigger based on the risk or actuality of communicable illness infections in the immediate area of the company. Upon reaching the trigger point, the company can implement previously established company procedures intended to minimize the impact of the disease while maintaining company operations.
- Provide for paid leave for exposed or infected employees to prevent spread of the disease. This may be in addition to “normal” sick-leave levels. The cost of the additional paid leave may be significantly less than the impact from the loss of a large fraction of the workforce
- Provide additional hand sanitizer at work locations
- Increase workplace cleaning frequency and efforts
- While there is no standard “recipe” for specific actions, companies can develop an effective communicable illness plan for their specific circumstances. It is however, extremely important to recognize that the development of an effective communicable illness plan must be done with due consideration to all of the complex circumstances and constraints and well in advance of the need.
Since vaccinations can not be mandated, it is possible that a communicable illness plan – in place – will communicate to employees the risks of communicable illness (and therefore the importance of immunications) and the company’s commitment to its employees health and well being. Healthy employees means business as usual – a very good thing.