Imagine if you are a federal worker in the health care, transportation security, border protection, postal service or any other sector, and you learn that a co-worker has been infected by the Ebola virus: Will you be prepared to protect your health and your rights?
Admittedly, the chances of this happening in your workplace are, at the moment, fairly slim.
Since an outbreak of this deadly viral disease in West Africa in December, there have been 10,000 cases of infections reported worldwide, according to a recent Bloomberg report. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only three confirmed cases have been identified in the U.S.
Still, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that, by this December, the outbreak could reach 10,000 new cases per week, the New York Times reports.
Also, as we have seen in cases reported since late September in Dallas and New York City, potential exposure to the Ebola virus can still occur despite diligent efforts by state and federal health officials.
It may help you, as a federal worker, to learn more about how the disease can be spread as well as your rights in the workplace.
What Is Ebola?
If you would like to learn more about the Ebola virus, two excellent sources are the websites for the CDC and WHO. In addition to describing the background of Ebola virus disease (EVD, or “Ebola”), these sites also feature the latest statistics and news about the spread of the disease.
As you can learn from these sites, the current outbreak in West Africa, which has spread to other parts of the world, is the largest outbreak since the virus was discovered in 1976.
The three countries with the highest number of reported cases are Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. What those countries have in common are severely lacking health care systems, which has allowed the disease to spread rapidly within those countries (and led to foreign health care workers possibly bringing the disease back to their native countries).
A person with EVD typically starts to exhibit symptoms within 8-to-10 days after being infected with the Ebola virus. The initial signs and symptoms include fever, fatigue, muscle pain, severe headaches and a sore throat. The person may then experience diarrhea and vomiting, kidney and liver problems and internal and external bleeding.
A person is not contagious while the disease is in the incubation stage. However, once a person begins to experience signs and symptoms, the disease does become contagious. It can be spread through direct contact with infected blood or bodily fluids (including sweat and saliva) or through contact with contaminated items. Until a person’s bodily fluids no longer contain the virus, a person will be infectious.
Even though experimental vaccines are being studied, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medicine for treating Ebola, the National Journal reports.
Your Rights as a Federal Worker
As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the risk of being exposed to Ebola in the workplace has become a major concern – especially among health care workers.
As a federal worker, you may want to take note of the “rights and responsibilities” outlined in this joint WHO/International Labour Organization (ILO) briefing:
First, if you are reasonably at risk of Ebola exposure, your employing federal agency should have a duty to provide you with proper information, instruction and training on how to protect yourself.
Second, and especially if you are a worker in the health care, transportation security or border protection sectors, your employer would have a duty to provide you with adequate protective gear as well as training on how to properly use and dispose of the gear.
This New York Times graphic provides an excellent look at the protective gear that is being used today by health care workers.
Third, you would have a duty to report any situation that you reasonably believe presents an “imminent and serious danger” to your health. For instance, you may believe that you are being exposed to the Ebola virus through patients, co-workers or the improper handling of contaminated items.
Until that situation is fixed, your employer generally would have no right to require you to return to working in a situation “where there is continuing imminent and serious danger to life or health.” If you refuse to return to work, you should be protected from adverse actions by your employing agency.
Keep in mind: Your employer generally has no right to inquire about your medical history. However, if the employer believes you pose a serious and imminent risk to your co-workers because you may have been exposed to the Ebola virus, your employer would have the right to inquire about it.