Employers should avoid sending employees – particularly pregnant workers – to high risk areas, in line with current recommendations and guidance by reputable health organizations, says Baker & McKenzie partner Ben Burke.
“When Australian companies send employees or workers to areas where the Zika virus is present, they should assess the risks to employees and workers and take appropriate steps to minimise risks,” Burke told HC Online.
He said appropriate steps include reviewing and complying with recommendations and guidance published by reputable health organisations, such as the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the World Health Organisation and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Companies should inform employees and workers who travel to Zika affected areas of the key recommendations and guidance published by health organisations and ask them to comply with the recommendations,” Burke says.
Burke said Australia’s work healthy and safety laws also covered Australian employees working overseas.
“Work health and safety laws in Australia require employers and persons engaged in business undertakings to provide a safe working environment for workers and employees,” he says.
“These obligations are not limited to work activities in Australia.”
Zika virus, which is linked to birth defects in babies, has found its way into Australian workplaces after several Australian Federal Police officers have contracted Zika while on deployment in the Solomon Islands.
The infected AFP officers had been treated and do not appear to be showing any lasting effects of the mosquito-borne virus, a spokesperson told Fairfax Media, adding that the cases had happened before this year.
Victoria's acting Chief Health Officer Roscoe Taylor said Zika virus is associated with Microcephaly - a condition that can result in babies being born with small heads. The virus has been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organisation after being linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil
Taylor told Fairfax Media that not enough was known about the risks of Microcephaly to unborn infants whose mothers had been infected by the virus.
Health professionals have been told to advise pregnant women or women wanting to get pregnant to consider postponing travel to any country with active Zika virus transmission.
“Companies should avoid sending employees or workers (particularly employees who are or may become pregnant) to high risk areas,” Burke says.
He says companies should also check that their employees are covered by appropriate accident or injury insurance policies when they are travelling or working overseas.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Smarttraveller website lists key countries of concern as:
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With the birth defect-causing Zika virus at the centre of a global health emergency, HR departments need to take appropriate steps to minimise risk to employees, legal experts say.