Concern over infectious diseases has captured the imagination of much of the country in recent months, particularly with regard to Ebola virus disease (EVD). Only a handful of EVD cases have been reported in the U.S., and health officials and experts have repeatedly stated that the disease is unlikely to pose a serious threat to the country. Other diseases, such as influenza, pose a far greater threat in the U.S. but generally receive less media attention. Regardless, since a disease outbreak is on the nation's mind, it raises the question of what legal duties employers owe to protect their employees from infectious diseases. The answer depends largely on the type of employer.
The first case of EVD in the U.S. was diagnosed at a hospital in Dallas, Texas in September 2014. That patient has since died, and two nurses who treated him were subsequently diagnosed with EVD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating reports that health care workers treated the initial EVD patient for about three days, from September 28 to September 30, without wearing protective equipment. As many as 70 workers were exposed to the patient during that time, but only the two nurses have tested positive for the disease. EVD is not airborne and can only be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person's blood or other bodily fluids.
The actions and preparedness of the Dallas hospital, including an alleged lack of safety protocols, drew a harsh rebuke from the hospital's nurses. The incident has raised concerns about whether the hospital took adequate precautions to protect its workers from infection. Laws like the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), 29 U.S.C. § 651 et seq., require employers to provide reasonable protection against occupational diseases. This could apply to workers in health care and other fields where ordinary job duties make exposure to infectious diseases likely. See American Dental Ass'n v. Martin, 984 F.2d 823 (7th Cir. 1993).