The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that between 1.8 and 5.7 million people in the U.S. contracted the H1N1 virus between April and July 2009. While many of them may have picked up the virus from contact with family and friends, it is very likely that many became infected at their workplaces. Infected workers may not have realized they had the virus, or they went to work despite feeling sick. Exposure to communicable illnesses is a common occurrence at the workplace. If an employee becomes ill, misses work, and requires medical treatment, does the employer have to provide her with workers’ compensation benefits?
Workers’ compensation laws require employers to pay benefits to workers who suffer injuries or illnesses that arise out of their employment. It may be relatively easy to determine that a particular injury arose from someone’s employment. For example, a carpenter who slips and falls off a ladder while installing walls in a new home is clearly on the job; Workers’ compensation should cover the costs resulting from the injury. Illnesses, especially viral illnesses like influenza, can be more difficult for investigators to trace. A worker who gets sick may have contracted the virus at work, at the gym, on the subway, or any number of places.
According to the International Risk Management Institute, insurance investigators and physicians must answer several questions about an individual’s illness to determine whether it is work-related.
- Is the relationship of the illness to the exposure at work logical and plausible?
- Was the dose of the viral agent to which the person was exposed large enough to cause the illness?
- Are the person’s signs, symptoms, and test results characteristic of what a person with the illness would have?
- Where exactly did the person come into contact with the viral agent?
- Could the person possibly have been exposed to the viral agent outside of the workplace?
- Does all the evidence establish that the person’s exposure to a viral agent at work caused his illness?
People may be exposed to H1N1 and other flu strains in dozens of places, only some of which are work-related. Employers must evaluate the facts of a particular case when deciding whether or not to contest a workers’ compensation claim for work-related illness. If the employee’s duties kept him solely within the office and no other employees showed any flu-like symptoms, the employer may successfully contest the claim. However, if other employees gave signs of having the flu or the worker regularly has physical contact with vendors or customers who might have exposed him, the worker’s claim may be successful.
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To reduce the chances of a successful occupational illness claim, employers should:
- Encourage employees to get vaccinations each year as the flu season approaches.
- Foster a work environment where employees who feel ill can stay home from work without fear of negative consequences.
- Where practical, allow telecommuting for employees with flu-like symptoms but who still want to work.
- Provide hand sanitizers for employees and visitors to use.
- Provide employees with educational material about H1N1 and other flu strains.
- If an employee becomes ill while at work, segregate him from the other employees until he can go home. Require him to take precautions, such as covering his nose and mouth, if he must visit common areas of the workplace.
Businesses should also consider creating a plan for dealing with a pandemic, should it occur. Visit www.flu.gov to find information on how to write the plan and for other resources on managing flu risks. People spend much of their waking hours in the workplace. Businesses therefore play an important role in keeping them healthy and safe. With planning and common sense precautions, businesses can stay productive and healthy during flu season.
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