I recently received a very topical question from a reader relating to the current worldwide pandemic commonly known as swine flu.
The reader, who is understandably very concerned, wants to know whether his employer has a responsibility towards him and his fellow employees should it become known that one of them has contracted the virus.
He says exposing employees to the virus indirectly means that families and extended families are also at risk, even of death.
The reader wants to know whether he would have any recourse against his employer should the latter fail to take the necessary steps to inform the rest of the staff timeously of a fellow employee’s infection, should it come to his attention.
At the time of writing this column, there were already nine confirmed swine flu deaths in the country. However, the Department of Health have issued a statement in which they reassure the public that measures are in place to deal with the outbreak and that there is no need for panic.
Having said this, employers have a responsibility to inform their staff should it come to their attention that one of their employees has contracted the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. They also need to ensure that the infected employee understands that he/she is not to return to work until a complete recovery has been made.
Employees who have been in contact with the infected person should monitor their own health for seven days, but they are not required to be quarantined. If an employee starts to experience flu-like symptoms, he/she should visit a doctor immediately so that the relevant tests may be carried out to determine whether the virus is present.
The symptoms are very similar to seasonal flu strains and may include: coughing, a sore throat, body aches, fatigue, diarrhoea and vomiting, fever and chills and a runny nose.
The virus is spread through droplets released during coughing or sneezing and people may also become infected by touching contaminated surfaces and then their own mouth, nose or eyes. An office situation is therefore a near perfect breeding ground for the H1N1 virus.
Employers need however not stress as the only time they may be held liable for an employee who becomes ill with something like swine flu, is if they wilfully ignore the fact that an employee is infected and forces him/her to attend work.
Under normal circumstances, it would be very hard to prove where the virus was contracted, but, if negligence can be proven, an employer may be held liable.
Employers should therefore take all reasonable precautions to ensure a clean and healthy working environment.
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Booysen & Rossouw Attorneys in Port Elizabeth specialises in labour related legislation, including injuries on duty. They also deal with other aspects of the law.
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