Protect Workers From The Number One Cause of Workplace Deaths – Distracted Driving

Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.

Distracted driving is the number one cause of workplace deaths in the United States.  OSHA has partnered with the National Safety Council to call employers’ attention to this issue and urge the adoption of safe driving policies.  Failure to adopt and enforce such policies in the workplace leads to tragic results and OSHA has made it perfectly clear that employers who do not take this issue seriously should expect OSHA citations.  On its distracted driving webpage, the agency has stated that employers “have a responsibility and legal obligation to have a clear, unequivocal, and enforced policy against texting while driving.”

But to truly protect your employees from the hazards of distracted driving, your policy should cover more than just texting.  A comprehensive policy should cover all employees, both handheld and hands-free devices, company vehicles, company cell phones and all work-related communications.  All employees should be forbidden to use cell phones, hands-free devices, and any other mobile electronics while operating a vehicle when:

  • the vehicle is owned, leased, or rented by the employer

  • a personal motor vehicle is used in connection with company business

  • the motor vehicle is on the employer’s property

  • the cell phone or mobile electronic device is owned or leased by the employer

  • the cell phone or mobile electronic device is used to conduct company business

Employers should strongly discourage distracted driving by incorporating written safe driving policies into employee handbooks, providing training on these policies during worker orientation, and providing annual refresher training.  Safe communication practices should be put in place such as established procedures, times, and places for drivers’ safe use of cell phones and other electronic devices for communicating with supervisors, customers, and others.  To the extent that the employer has any programs in place that could incentivize employees to use cell phones or other electronic devices while driving, they should be eliminated.

Finally, safe driving policies must be enforced – it is not enough simply to write a policy and provide employee training.  As we have all become so dependent on our cell phones and other mobile electronic devices, it is likely that some employees will resist or simply ignore these policies, but enforcement is necessary to truly improve employee safety.  Accordingly, employers should reprimand employees who violate safe driving policies and those reprimands should involve serious penalties, including, where appropriate, termination.  There is no way to protect employees from every hazard they may encounter on the road, but implementing a strong safe driving program will go a long way towards decreasing the likelihood of a workplace tragedy on the road.


Winter Weather: OSHA Updates on Cold Weather Hazards

Jackson Lewis Law firm

Stepping outside this week is a biting reminder that winter has arrived. OSHA has updated its website with information about winter hazards and the steps that can be taken to protect employees.  Although there is no specific standard covering winter weather, employees are protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) General Duty Clause or Section 5(a)(1), which requires employers to provide employees a workplace free from recognized hazards.  This is a good time for employers to review their cold weather work practices.

In order to plan accordingly, it is essential that employers understand the potential dangers posed by the weather and familiarize themselves with the terminology used by meteorologists and the medical community.  Icy conditions or heavy snow can lead to slick or blocked roads and downed power lines.  Although people may be advised to stay off the roads in these conditions, such advice is impracticable for workers such as EMTs, snow plough operators, and power company employees.   According to OSHA, environmental cold exposes workers to the risk of cold stress. Any worker exposed to cold temperatures is susceptible to cold stress but extra attention should be paid to workers whose work necessitates them being outside, employees with health conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure, new employees who may not be accustomed to the conditions, and workers who are returning to work after an absence.

In addition to OSHA’s webpage on “Winter Weather” there are other tools available to help an employer assess the situation and take the necessary precautions to protect their workers.  The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has published a chart entitled “Work/Warm-up Schedule for a 4-Hour Shift” which provides a clear model for employers to determine the length of time someone can work under decreasing weather conditions.

According to OSHA, employers can help alleviate the risks of cold stress by adapting work schedules to the weather conditions: implementing safe practices such as limiting the amount of time workers are outside, scheduling frequent breaks, providing hot, sweet drinks (e.g. tea but NOT alcohol); providing engineering controls, including providing radiant heat and protecting workers from drafts.  Additionally, employers should monitor workers for signs of cold stress, especially those employees previously mentioned.

Environmental cold can lead to cold stress which occurs when lower skin temperature gives way to a lower core temperature.  A person’s body temperature will cool down faster when there is a wind chill.  The most common types of cold stress include: frostbite (freezing, usually of the extremities, e.g. fingers and toes, which can lead to amputation of the affected area); hypothermia (characterized by a core body temperature falling below 95° F, can be fatal); chilblains (ulcers caused by repeated exposure of skin to cold temperatures); and trench foot (result of extended periods of cold, wet feet).  See NIOSH’s Fast Facts sheet –

According to OSHA employers should train employees about these hazards. Well-educated employees can contribute to a safer working environment.  Training should at a minimum cover the following areas:

  • What are the dangers?

  • How to recognize the symptoms associated with Cold Stress related conditions

  • Monitoring oneself and co-workers for signs of cold stress

  • How to dress appropriately for the weather (i.e. layers of loose clothing)

  • First Aid in the case of emergency.

OSHA’s Quick Card “Protecting Workers from Cold Stress” is a concise, easy to read reference sheet identifying the most common cold stress health hazards, how to recognize them, and the emergency measures to be taken if you suspect someone is suffering from cold stress.  See

Employers whose employees use company vehicles or who work around vehicles, it is also essential for vehicles to be properly maintained and equipped for severe driving conditions.  Depending on the work environment, additional training of employees may be advisable.  Suggested topics of training might include:

  • Work zone traffic safety

  • What to do if you are stranded in a vehicle

  • How to safely shovel snow

  • The use of equipment such as snow blowers

  • Working at heights

  • Walking safely to prevent slips, trips, and falls

  • Repairing downed or damaged power lines or being in the vicinity of downed or damaged power lines


OSHA has published comprehensive materials about winter weather.  These may be viewed at



Employers: How Prepared Are You for Ebola?

Morgan Lewis logo

Rapidly changing circumstances raise workplace questions.

The Ebola epidemic in 2014 has already been confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the worst in history. The extent of this outbreak is still unknown, as reports of Ebola transmissions continue not only in West Africa but also (for the first time in history) inside U.S. and European borders. Because of the potential risks in a globalized economy, the U.S. government, its various agencies, and employers alike are now scrambling to ensure that appropriate rules and procedures are in place to prevent any further exposure to the disease. Reactions have been swift and fluid as officials learn more about the presence of the virus in West Africa and beyond and as they develop strategies to respond. Among the federal agencies that have already taken action, the CDC has recently issued “tightened” guidance for proper personal protective equipment (PPE) in the healthcare industry, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance covering a number of workplace safety issues. The situation is changing rapidly and further action is expected by the U.S. government, especially after the White House announced the appointment of an Ebola Response Coordinator (or Ebola Czar).

In the United States, employers are facing challenges and questions on how to best address a wide variety of issues, including workplace safety, travel policies, employee relations, leaves of absence, and refusal to work requests. Whether responding to Ebola or other emergencies, employers should use protocols that include emergency preparedness and response plans, such as assigning responsibilities, assessing the hazard, conveying effective communications, and implementing security measures to address those key issues. In the meantime, here is what you need to know right now.

OSHA’s Interim Guidance

OSHA quickly released interim guidance for workers within the United States that focuses on those in industries most likely to be affected by the Ebola crisis:

  • Healthcare workers

  • Airline and other travel industry personnel

  • Mortuary and death care workers

  • Laboratory workers

  • Border, customs, and quarantine workers

  • Emergency responders

  • Employers in critical infrastructure/key resource sectors, such as bus drivers and pharmacists

Employers in these key industries must evaluate how they currently respond to emergencies and if those preparedness and response plans are adequate or need modification, particularly when assessing hazards specific to their jobsites (OSHA lists industry-specific information on its website). These employers should explore ways to proactively combat and contain the virus, such as obtaining PPE, implementing cleaning and sanitation procedures, and evaluating whether engineering controls, such as pressurized glass, respirators, and decontamination devices, should be used. If an employer happens to be a hospital or similarly licensed accredited facility, state licensing and other laws as well as accreditation bodies may require those organizations to activate emergency preparedness plans. Employers should communicate with their workers and train them about sources of Ebola and any required precautions.

On its newly released website dedicated to Ebola, OSHA has asserted jurisdiction over potential worker exposure via several regulations already in place. Most notably, the Ebola virus has been classified as a “bloodborne pathogen” under OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard,[1] which explicitly covers pathogens like hepatitis B virus (HBV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Bloodborne Pathogens standard imposes a range of requirements on employers whose workers can be reasonably anticipated to contact blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM), such as saliva and semen. Covered employers must train employees, prepare exposure control plans, and use “universal precautions,” engineering and work practice controls, PPE, and housekeeping measures to contain the virus. Employers must also offer medical evaluations, blood tests, and follow-up evaluations after any worker is exposed to blood or OPIM. The standard contains many other nuanced requirements, including carefully documenting compliance measures. Given the complexities of the regulation, employers are strongly encouraged to seek legal advice if workers could anticipate exposure and to seek emergency, medical, and legal advice if any work-related exposure to blood or OPIM occurs.

Beyond this standard, OSHA has reminded employers that—when undertaking precautions for contact-transmissible diseases and any bioaerosols containing the Ebola virus—they must comply with OSHA’s (1) Respiratory Protection standard[2] if respirators are used on the job and (2) PPE standard[3] wherever PPE is used as a precaution. Finally, OSHA reiterated that it may issue citations against employers under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970[4]—OSHA’s “catch all” provision, which is used if no other regulation applies and where an employer allegedly fails to keep its workplace free of recognized hazards that can cause death or serious bodily harm to workers.

CDC Involvement

The primary U.S. agency embroiled in the fight against Ebola is the CDC. Of the many steps taken by the CDC in this effort, highlights of the latest guidance and advice are outlined below.

“Tightened Guidance” on PPE for U.S. Healthcare Workers

Following widespread criticism after two nurses contracted Ebola while treating a patient in Dallas, Texas, the CDC released on October 20 “tightened guidance” for PPE used by healthcare workers while caring for patients with Ebola. According to the CDC, three guiding principles control: (1) Employees must receive rigorous and repeated training to fully understand how to use PPE, (2) no skin can be exposed when PPE is worn, and (3) a trained monitor must be present to supervise all workers as they put on or take off PPE. The CDC also described “different options for combining PPE to allow a facility to select PPE for their protocols based on availability, healthcare personnel familiarity, comfort and preference while continuing to provide a standardized, high level of protection for healthcare personnel.” Among the recommendations for monitoring the safe use and removal of PPE, the CDC provides advice on step-by-step PPE removal, as well as disinfection of gloved hands.

In addition to PPE, the CDC further underscored other critical prevention activities to respond to the Ebola risk, including (1) prompt screening and triage of potential patients, (2) designating site managers who have the responsibility to ensure proper implementation of precautions, (3) limiting personnel in the isolation room, and (4) effective environmental cleaning. Employers in the healthcare industry should be aware that the CDC has highlighted management responsibility “to provide resources and support for the implementation of effective prevention precautions” and that management “should maintain a culture of worker safety in which appropriate PPE is available and correctly maintained, and workers are provided with appropriate training.” For more information and advice for healthcare workers, visit the CDC’s website.

Health and Travel Advisories

Given the severity of the risk that Ebola poses, the CDC has issued health and travel alerts, which it will continue to update as the situation develops. In the wake of various governors, particularly those from New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, having announced plans to quarantine health workers traveling from West Africa who treated Ebola patients, the CDC has also updated its guidance on October 27 regarding the monitoring and movement of persons with potential Ebola exposure. The guidance applies to anyone who recently traveled to West Africa and may have been exposed to Ebola and includes newly created tiered categories of risk, ranging from high to no risk and based on exposure to Ebola. Depending on the risk category, the CDC recommends that state and local health authorities isolate travelers who are exhibiting signs of illness or conduct “active” or “direct active” monitoring of signs and symptoms of Ebola for other at-risk individuals.

Health officials will make at least daily contact with these travelers, requiring travelers to disclose (1) temperatures and any other Ebola symptoms, such as headache, diarrhea, and vomiting, and (2) intent to travel out of state. For individuals who are under direct active monitoring, the CDC recommends that discussions with the individual include plans to work, travel, take public transportation, or go to busy public places to determine whether these activities are allowed.

Employers, and particularly employers with an international presence, should closely monitor these CDC travel advisories,[5] as well as advisories published by the World Health Organization (WHO).[6] Employers should evaluate their own travel policies and alerts against those published by the CDC and the WHO.

Protecting Employees from Impacted Regions from Harassment and Protecting the Confidentiality of Medical Information

Like the CDC, employers must respect workers’ privacy—and, particularly, the confidentiality of their medical information pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—and they must also comply with rules and guidance from OSHA, the CDC, and other agencies. Employers should balance their need to ensure workplace safety with their obligation to avoid unnecessary or overbroad medical inquiries, which are prohibited by the ADA. Of course, if an employee is exhibiting symptoms of Ebola exposure, it is appropriate to urge him or her to see a doctor. However, the decision to send an employee for a medical exam or to request medical documentation should be based on objective information—not unfounded fears that may or may not be grounded in reality. As an example, without some reason to believe there has been Ebola exposure, it could be risky to request medical information simply because an employee visited an Ebola-impacted region.

Employers should also take caution and consult legal counsel before they send home an employee suspected of Ebola exposure. The decision to remove an employee from the workplace for medical reasons must based on objective belief that the employee may present a direct threat of significant, imminent harm to himself or herself or others. These decisions should not be based on rumor or unfounded concerns.

To address these issues, employers should train human resources employees about the CDC guidance so they can understand the medical and scientific realities of Ebola exposure and, therefore, be prepared to respond appropriately if employees express concern about a coworker believed to be at risk for Ebola exposure. Similarly, employers should take all necessary steps to ensure that employees who are, or who are perceived to be, from regions impacted by Ebola do not experience harassment based on race, national origin, or any perceived medical condition.


The Ebola situation has also introduced some Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) interpretation questions for employers that are Covered Entities—such as healthcare providers—but also for those that sponsor a Covered Entity group health plan. HIPAA protects an individual’s protected health information (PHI), which includes, for example, medical, demographic, and other identifying information. HIPAA restricts Covered Entities from disclosing PHI about a worker or plan participant, except in limited circumstances. To date, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has not indicated that the Ebola crisis will change its enforcement or interpretation of HIPAA. The HIPAA Privacy Rule and Security Rules, as amended by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, will still apply to Covered Entities. Although narrow exceptions exist for use or disclosure for certain public health purposes, this exception will likely only apply in limited situations for limited organizations. Covered Entities should review their policies and procedures to determine if and how infectious diseases, particularly Ebola, are addressed. They should also train their Privacy Employees—workers who act on behalf of the Covered Entity—to continue to protect an individual’s PHI. Before disclosing any PHI, Covered Entities should exercise caution and consult with legal counsel to confirm that a use or disclosure will not constitute a HIPAA violation.

Labor Relations

In light of the media furor from various healthcare and service workers’ unions regarding Ebola risks to workers, employers should also expect to receive collective bargaining demands related to training, adequate safety procedures, and protective equipment and medical services provided to exposed employees, potentially including demands for leave (whether paid or unpaid). Employers should be proactive, therefore, in reaching out to union representatives of healthcare workers to develop protocols on how best to handle these types of issues, and, given the labor laws, should not act unilaterally, even if well intentioned and even if the to-be-implemented protocols are favorable to employees. Employers should also review their current collective bargaining agreements for any clauses or language requiring the employer to implement procedures related to infectious diseases or the safety of their workers. Finally, even nonunion workers can exercise rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to engage in concerted activity for their mutual aid and protection if workers fear their safety is not adequately protected. A refusal to work because of safety concerns related to Ebola, therefore, could be protected under the NLRA, and employers should carefully consider this issue prior to implementing discipline to employees for refusing to work.


In coordination with the CDC, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a set of travel restrictions[7] involving additional screening and protective measures for travelers from Ebola-affected countries at U.S. ports of entry. Travelers to the United States who are arriving directly or indirectly from Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea will undergo enhanced screening that includes the following:

  • Identifying and interdicting travelers from the Ebola-affected countries.

  • Isolating these travelers from the rest of the traveling public while the individual completes a questionnaire and contact information form.

  • Medically trained personnel will take the traveler’s temperature. If the traveler has a fever or other symptoms, or may have been exposed to Ebola, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will refer the traveler to the CDC for a public health assessment. The CDC will then determine whether the traveler can continue to travel, should be taken to a hospital for further evaluation, or should be referred to a local health department for further monitoring.

  • Encouraging the traveler to seek healthcare at the first sign of any potential illness.

If CBP discovers that a traveler has been in one of the three countries in the prior 21 days, he or she will be referred for additional screening, and, if necessary, the CDC or other medical personnel in the area will be contacted pursuant to existing protocols. The enhanced screening is in place at the five U.S. airports that account for 94% of travelers flying to the United States from Ebola-affected countries. The airports are John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International, Washington Dulles International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, and Chicago O’Hare International. DHS has authority under existing law to deny admission to individuals who represent a public health threat.

Given the rapidly changing circumstances, employers are faced with many labor and employment challenges to consider.

[1]. 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1030.

[2]. 29 C.F.R. § 1910.134.

[3]. 29 C.F.R. 1910.132.

[4]. View the act here.

[5]. View the advisories here.

[6]. View the advisories here.

[7]. View the restrictions here.



Managing Ebola Concerns in the Workplace [PODCAST]

Jackson Lewis Law firm

Many employers are struggling to understand the potential workplace implications of Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF).  We invite you to listen to a complimentary 48-minute podcast during which three Jackson Lewis practice group leaders discuss some of the legal and practical issues relating to the virus.  Among the issues discussed are:

  • Steps employers should consider taking to ensure OSHA and state workplace health and safety laws are satisfied;

  • ADA, GINA and FMLA compliance challenges that may arise as employers attempt to lawfully identify and manage employees who are or may have been exposed to Ebola; and

  • HIPAA and other sources of privacy and medical confidentiality obligations that should be considered as employers respond to workplace Ebola concerns.

You can access the podcast here.


A Guide to Dealing with Illnesses in the Workplace

Godfrey Kahn Law Firm

As a result of all of the media coverage surrounding the Ebola issues, many of our clients have wondered whether they need to do anything, as employers, to prepare for similar issues and to address related employment issues. Whether it is the Ebola virus or another virus or pandemic, the general rules for employers remain the same.

The Ebola Virus Basics

The key to contracting the Ebola virus is direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose or mouth) with someone who is carrying the virus.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has a website dedicated to understanding, preparing for and preventing the spread of the Ebola virus.  For additional information regarding the Ebola virus, including symptoms and other useful information, please visit the CDC’s website.

For employers, the key is not to panic.  Given that we are at the early stages of flu season, employers should avoid overreacting at the first sight of an employee with flu-like symptoms.  Employers concerned about particular employees should consult with legal counsel before taking any steps that may lead to liability under various employment laws (more on this below).

Important Employment Issues Each Employer Should Consider

Pandemics (whether the Ebola virus, the 2009 H1N1 virus or influenza) implicate a number of employment laws.  Employers must strike a proper balance between protecting employees from infection and operating within the confines of applicable law.

1. Consider the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act before requiring employees to undertake a medical examination.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits, among other things, medical examinations for applicants and employees.  An employer cannot require a current employee to undergo a medical examination unless the examination is job related and consistent with business necessity.  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), medical examinations of an employee are job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that (1) an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions of his/her job will be impaired by a medical condition; or (2) an employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.  “Direct threat” means “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”  29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(r).  For additional guidance on direct threats, please see the EEOC’s website.

The EEOC’s 2009 guidance specific to the H1N1 virus sheds additional light on how employers should make direct threat assessments before requiring a medical examination.  The EEOC states that whether a pandemic virus rises to the level of a direct threat depends on the severity of the illness.  Helpful data points to determine the severity—and associated direct threat—of a virus are the warnings and guidance from government agencies such as the CDC, state health departments and other recognized authorities on illness and disease.

2. Consider the Occupational Safety and Health Act when accessing your workplace practices.

In addition to the ADA’s medical inquiry restrictions, most employers must follow the safety and health regulations dictated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSH Act”).  Although OSHA does not specifically regulate Ebola or other pandemics, employers may trigger workplace safety violations under OSHA’s General Duty Clause if they do not take proper steps to protect their employees.

Employers run the risk of receiving citations under the General Duty Clause if they expose employees to a hazard that the employer could reasonably have reduced and that the employer recognized would cause or likely would cause serious physical harm to employees.  Employers in industries with a high risk of disease contamination (e.g., healthcare employers) should therefore evaluate potential hazards and determine whether they can take steps to reduce the risk of exposure to employees.

Employers should also keep in mind that an employee who reasonably refuses to report to work because of a dangerous work condition—including contracting a pandemic virus—may be protected from retaliation.

OSHA’s guidance about Ebola and pandemic influenza provides useful information for employers who want to prepare for and respond to contagious disease risks in their workplaces.

3. Employees may be entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Federal and state (where applicable) family and medical leave laws (“FMLA”) complicate the web of responsibilities an employer has to navigate when it comes to dealing with ill employees.  For employers covered by these laws (generally employers with 50 or more employees under federal law), an eligible employee who has contracted the Ebola virus or another pandemic virus may qualify for leave based on a serious health condition.  Similarly, an eligible employee may qualify for leave if an eligible family member contracts a virus that qualifies as a serious health condition.

If an emergency situation prompts the need for FMLA leave, administering the leave in a lawful manner gets more complicated than under normal circumstances.  For example, it may not be practical to solicit and review medical certification forms.  In these situations, employers must have sufficient information (including the employee’s statements) that the underlying condition qualifies as a serious health condition.  Designating leave as FMLA without sufficient information establishing a serious health condition can result in a retaliation claim.  In emergency situations, employers may also need to exercise forbearance on the return of medical certification forms, particularly if an employee needs to assist a family member who is ill.  For additional FMLA guidance, please visit the United States Department of Labor website.

Steps Employers Should Take to Minimize Workplace Safety and Health Issues

As with any other workplace safety and health issues, the recent Ebola-related news has raised many questions about what employers should do when facing similar situations.  Although each employer is unique and each industry must confront different obstacles and risks, employers should, at a minimum, follow the steps outlined below.

  • Have a plan.  Consult with internal safety experts and review the guidance provided by government agencies regarding specific safety issues.  Create a plan (preferably with the assistance of legal counsel) that addresses issues specific to your workplace and your industry.

  • Communicate your plan to employees.  Your company’s protocols for dealing with safety issues should not be a secret to any of your employees.  Publicize the plan internally and ensure that employees have ready access to the plan.

  • Train your employees.  Train your employees about your company’s safety protocols on a yearly basis.  If you are concerned about a particular risk that is not usually common to your workplace or if you update your plan, provide additional training as needed to address these issues.

  • Supervise implementation of the plan.  Having a plan in place and training your employees to follow certain procedures is meaningless if no one supervises the process.  Designate individuals to review employee actions to ensure that the plan’s protocols are followed and to identify potential shortcomings of/improvements to the plan.  Whenever necessary, update your plan to ensure that it addresses all major safety risks and train employees on the changes made to the plan.

Employers that consult government and other advocacy organization websites to adopt ideas, disseminate information and prepare practices and procedures for addressing workplace safety and health issues will be in a good position to protect against unwanted legal action.



Ebola and Potential Labor Relations Issues

Proskauer Law firm

The Ebola panic presently sweeping the U.S. raises a host of potential issues for employers.  We recently provided guidance to help employers ensure employee safety while also complying with legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar laws.  In addition, the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) recently released a comprehensive summary of requirements, recommendations and guidelines for employers and workers.  The escalating concern over Ebola also raises potential labor relations issues.  Many of the workplaces with the potential for employees to come into contact with infected persons or material – health care providers, cleaning services, waste disposal firms, ambulance and other transportation services, to name a few – are unionized, and unions have begun to seek greater protections for their members.  Non-union employers may be affected as well, as at least one group of non-union employees has engaged in a strike to protest inadequate safety measures.

An important step all employers can take, whether unionized or not, is to share information disseminated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health agencies to educate their employees.  Indeed, a recent Washington Post article highlighted the information gap that is fueling public fears.  Sharing accurate, up to date information should help address employee concerns and avoid potential workplace disruptions based on unfounded fears.

Beyond the dissemination of information, in workplaces where employees may have some potential to come into contact with persons or material infected with the Ebola virus, employers must comply with applicable workplace health and safety laws and regulations, including making sure that effective protocols are in place, that protective equipment and clothing are available, and that employees receive appropriate training.  Not surprisingly, healthcare workers – nurses in particular – have been at the forefront in demanding increased protection and training.

National Nurses United (NNU) has been especially outspoken.  In addition to its criticism of the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where two nurses caring for an Ebola patient became infected themselves, it has launched a multi-pronged campaign to achieve increased training and protection for nurses who may be called upon to treat Ebola patients.  As part of their campaign, they have released an Ebola Toolkit that includes a guide to state and federal whistleblower laws and a comprehensive set of collective bargaining demands.  Their demands include detailed proposals for Ebola-specific protocols, training and protective equipment, creation of a joint labor-management infectious disease task force, medical services for exposed or potentially exposed employees, and full paid time off for nurses exposed to an infectious disease.  Healthcare employers should expect to be presented with comparable demands from the unions representing their employees, if they have not done so already.

Other unions are engaging in similar activities.  As the largest union in the U.S. representing healthcare workers, cleaners, and other service employees who could potentially come into contact with a person or material infected by Ebola, the SEIU has been particularly active.  Its public efforts to date have been focused largely on educating union members and training them to use protective equipment.

In addition to union advocacy and education, there has been at least one work stoppage arising from employees’ Ebola concerns.  At LaGuardia airport, a group of more than 200 non-union aircraft cabin cleaners recently engaged in a one-day strike to protest what they claimed were inadequate protections from exposure to Ebola.  In that case, the SEIU is attempting to organize the striking cleaners, but regardless of whether non-union employees are seeking union representation, they have the right under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in concerted activity for their mutual aid and protection, such as a strike to protest working conditions related to Ebola risks.

Education and communication are critical to addressing employees’ Ebola-related concerns and avoiding workplace disruptions based on unfounded fears.  In unionized workplaces, union representatives should be included in the education and communication process. Of course, all employers must comply with applicable workplace safety and health laws and regulations.  Depending upon the circumstances, unionized employers may have bargaining obligations with respect to additional measures they seek to implement in response to Ebola concerns.  They may also be faced with bargaining demands by employees seeking greater protection.  Finally, it is important for non-union employers to understand that their employees also have the right to act in concert for their mutual aid or protection.



Comment Period Almost Over for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Crystalline Silica Proposal

McBrayer NEW logo 1-10-13


In August 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) announced a proposed rule regarding workplace exposure to crystalline silica. The proposal includes two separate standards – one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction.

If you do not know what crystalline silica is, chances are you are not in an industry that has exposure to it. Crystalline silica is minute, respirable particles that are generated from operations involving stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, mortar and industrial sand. Workers who encounter these materials are in a broad range of industries, including mining, oil and gas, foundries, masonries, pottery manufacturing, and sand blasting.

OSHA’s proposal seeks to limit routine occupational exposure to the so-called “deadly dust.” Inhalation of the particles causes silicosis, an incurable lung disease. Workers are also at risk for developing lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease.  OSHA estimates that its proposal will save 700 lives each year and prevent 1,600 cases of silicosis annually. There are already established permissible exposure limits (“PEL”) for silica, but they were established in 1971 – new research reflects that more stringent standards are needed. The new PEL, 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, would apply to all the regulated industries (though OSHA plans to create distinct standards for the construction industry). In addition to the PEL, the rule also calls for medical surveillance, worker training, recordkeeping, and exposure assessments.

Initially, the deadline to submit written comments and testimony to OSHA was December 11, 2013. That deadline, however, was extended by an additional 47 days to allow for additional public input. The new cut-off is January 27, 2014. Public hearings on the issue are scheduled to begin in March and will likely continue for several weeks due to the significant impact the rule will have on so many industries. Millions of American workers encounter crystalline silica in their day-to-day work operations.

The proposal will directly affect many small businesses and OSHA is specifically interested in receiving input from these entities. Be sure to check back on Wednesday with some tips on what employers can do now to protect workers (and potentially limit their liability for future silica-related claims).

Article by:

Cynthia L. Effinger


McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie and Kirkland, PLLC