How To Keep Employees Healthy Without Getting Sued

Flu season is around the corner and panic over Ebola is reverberating throughout the country, leaving many companies wondering how to keep their employees healthy without infringing on their rights. Nobody wants to face an employee lawsuit but at the same time they don’t want one sick worker infecting the entire worker population.

What can you do about health in the workplace?

“As an employer you can’t force them to do something,” says Douglas Heywood, safety director at HR services company G&A Partners. “You can encourage and educate employees to do smart things from a health and safety standpoint.”

According to human resource experts the key to maintaining a healthy work environment is communications and lots of it. Lisa Orndorff, HR business partner at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) says she starts sending out emails with information about the cold and flu at the end of October and does it periodically throughout the season. “It doesn’t have to be preachy but more informative,” says Orndorff. What’s more she says the Centers for Disease Control has a host of posters and flyers companies can download and hang up through the workspace or send to employees via an email. They cover basic things like washing your hands often, disinfecting surfaces, staying hydrated and getting enough rest.

How to encourage best practices 

While you can’t force employees to get a flu shot, Heywood says you want to make them available whether it’s on-site or a reimbursement for getting it done at an outside venue. For instance Heywood says G&A offers all its employees who work in a satellite office the option to get the flu shot and get reimbursed by the company if it’s not covered by health insurance. The good news, Heywood says most insurance plans offered by companies have some preventive and maintenance plan and often the flu shot is covered.

“All employers should be encouraging staff to take advantage of these opportunities,” to get a flu shot, says Patricia Sweeney, human resource manager at Old Colony Hospice and Palliative Care. “From and HR perspective, what we can do is begin an early campaign to encourage people to get the flu shot by posting and/or handing out information or educational materials about staying healthy during the change of seasons–especially on the East Coast where the weather is often unpredictable. In the restrooms, post information on the proper way to wash hands–these posters are easy to find and print on-line and probably for free.” Sweeney says her company also installed hand sanitizers throughout the offices, particularly near entryways and other high traveled areas.

Let them stay home

In addition to educating your workforce about the cold and flu, Heywood says companies have to practice some social distancing, which basically means when a worker is sick he or she stays home. He says institute a policy that encourages employees who have a fever to stay home until they are fever free for 24 hours. It’s not a smart move to try and force workers to stay home since it’s too difficult to verify who is symptomatic and who isn’t, but Sweeney says HR should counsel managers to not encourage people to work when they are not well. “Too many times, employees feel compelled to work even if they are feverish, chilled, sneezing, coughing, etc. for fear of reprisal,” says Sweeney. “Good policies and practice will prevent this by outlining what is acceptable and what is not. Educating managers is helpful as well.”

Keeping workers healthy during the cold and flu season can be a slippery slope for HR departments. After all you don’t want to run afoul of privacy laws by doing something wrong. For instance Orndorff says managers or any higher ups should never ask employees what is wrong with them or mandate they get a certain vaccination, wash their hands or go home if they are sick. Sweeney says some healthcare organizations do require all employees to have a flu shot and those who refuse may be fired but that issues is currently being review and could result in some case law in the future, she says. “If you hire someone and they are aware of the policy from day one, they have to suffer the consequence if they refuse to participate. Hospitals generally have this type of policy, otherwise, I don’t think such a policy would survive in other industries,” says Sweeney. “What we can do is make them accountable by keeping them out of the workplace when they are ill by sending them home until they are better.”