Now that Ebola has claimed its first victim on America soil, everyone has questions about the disease and how to protect themselves. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wants employers to focus on the safety measures necessary to help protect workers if Ebola contaminates the workplace. While certain workers are more likely to come into contact with the virus than others, it's a good idea for all employers to take proper precautions to guard against possible contamination.
Ebola is typically spread through contact with body fluids, though some medical and housekeeping tasks may expose workers to aerosolized droplets containing Ebola virus.
What is Ebola?
OSHA's Ebola Virus "Safety and Health Topics" page describes Ebola Hemorrhagic disease (EHF), more commonly known as Ebola Virus Disease, as severe and life-threatening. In some instances, exposure to a single particle of the virus can cause EHF. Once a person contracts the disease, it may cause a range of symptoms, including muscle pain, headache, and sore throat.
As EHF progresses, patients may experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Organ functions may be impaired. Rashes and internal bleeding may occur. Depending on the circumstances, death may be the ultimate outcome in up to 50 to 90 percent of Ebola disease patients.
Who is at risk?
Workers with the greatest risk of contracting the disease are those whose daily duties require them to come into close contact with "symptomatic individuals." Those who work in environments which may be contaminated by bodily fluids from an Ebola patient are also at risk. OSHA lists these worker categories as at risk employees:
- Mortuary and death care
- Airline workers
- Other travel service industry professionals
- How can employers protect workers?
In Africa, suspected Ebola virus sources include primate and bat populations. OSHA knows of no animal sources in America. They suggest that most workers are unlikely to be exposed to the virus, still they recommend that employees in high risk positions remain cautious of contact with "...people, animals, goods, and equipment..." entering America from foreign countries.
To provide guidance on protecting workers from the Ebola virus, OSHA has published general and industry specific requirements and recommendations. A complete list is available on the OSHA website. Here are just a few:
- Follow good infection control practices
- Meet Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards (29 CFR 1910.132, general requirements)
- Meet Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134)
- Follow proper equipment and hand hygiene protocols to avoid contaminated blood, fluids, objects and surfaces
- Workers who may be "splashed, sprayed, or spattered..." with contaminated blood or bodily fluids must wear face and eye protection, aprons or other "fluid-resistant protective clothing."
- There are no current threats
OSHA is careful to relay that there are no current Ebola virus or EHF threats to American workers. Public health officials are working to prevent any spread of the virus, still as employers, its best to become familiar with OSHA protocols. For additional information, OSHA references the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Ebola Virus Disease Page and also the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Workplace Safety and Health Topics Page.