Magazine article Risk Management

AIDS Exposures in the Workplace

Magazine article Risk Management

AIDS Exposures in the Workplace

Article excerpt

The emergence of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the workplace over the past 15 years represents a tremendous loss exposure for organizations of all types. The health care industry has been at the forefront of addressing the risks related to treating infected patients, but manufacturers, food handling enterprises, schools, sports teams and other organizations also face serious financial exposures from AIDS. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials, there is no workplace that can regard itself as free from the risks related to AIDS.

Failing to comply with regulations addressing this disease - such as OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standards and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - can cost companies thousands of dollars in fines. Additionally, by not maintaining a safe working environment, employers can face significant workers, compensation and disability claims.

Part of the concern about AIDS affecting a given organization stems from the growing number of infected persons. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that 40 million people worldwide will test HIV-positive by the year 2000. Today, approximately one million people in North America, or one in every 290 people, are estimated to be infected with HIV.

In the work force, the CDC reports that two-thirds of organizations with more than 2,500 employees has already experienced an employee with HIV or AIDS. The statistics are equally disheartening for smaller businesses: one in 10 employers with fewer than 500 workers has encountered infected employees. AIDS is the third leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 25 and 44, a group that represents approximately half of the work force in the United States.

The measures described in this article comprehensively address loss control and cost containment issues that can be resolved through regulatory compliance, organizational policies and employee education.

OSHA Compliance

All workplaces with employees that could be "reasonably anticipated" to contact blood or other body fluids must comply with the Bloodborne Pathogen Standards that OSHA promulgated in 1992. Under these guidelines, OSHA takes the position that there is no such thing as a risk-free population.

Although the need to apply OSHA's standards is clear for health care providers who are at higher risk for exposure to blood and other body fluids in the course of their work, the guidelines are somewhat ambiguous for other industries. Nonetheless, compliance is required. In fact, OSHA made 1,175 citations against non-health care entities for violations of its Bloodborne Pathogens Standards and issued $821,690 in lines in Region V (Midwestern states) in 1993 and 1994.

OSHA holds employers to very stringent requirements and can cite them even without specific standards that are easily applicable to a company's business practices. The agency's power to do so stems from its general duty clause," which states that an organization has an obligation to take measures to protect workers when a hazard exists in a workplace; the hazard is serious (possibly causing death or physical harm); it is recognized in the employer's industry or the employer has knowledge of a specific potential hazard; and the hazard is preventable.

Therefore, it is the obligation of every employer to determine which individuals or job classes might be reasonably anticipated to contact blood or body fluids in the course of employment and to make the appropriate provisions for their protection. For example, organizations need to identify the employees responsible for responding to first aid situations in the workplace because they are clearly in a high-risk category.

OSHA considers that all provisions of the standards apply to employers with workers at risk. These guidelines include developing, implementing and adhering to the following. …

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