The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to examine the impact and mitigation of infectious disease risk in the workplace as never before. It changed the way in which many of us work at least temporarily; for others, more permanently as some organizations make the decision to adopt long-term strategies for their workforce based on lessons learned from the pandemic.
And in some cases, as exampled by the unprecedented federal mandate beholding businesses to rigorous vaccination and testing requirements for their employees, it is forcing employers to take on an increasingly larger role in solutioning what has traditionally been a public health issue.
In a 2021 PwC survey of corporate executives:1
- 60% expected to raise spending on virtual collaboration tools and manager training
- 50% planned to invest more to support hybrid working models, e.g., hoteling apps
Epidemics as a Growing Threat
Applying learnings from COVID-19 beyond the pandemic and looking to the future to protect the health of employees, as well as the downstream productivity and cost considerations for employers, is a smart strategy, given the science and statistics of infectious disease in today’s environment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “epidemics of infectious disease are occurring more often, and spreading faster and further than ever, in many different regions of the world.”2 The global organization attributes this to a combination of environmental, biological and lifestyle factors that include increased cross-border travel, urbanization, population displacement due to humanitarian emergencies, conflicts and natural disasters, and unhealthy agricultural and food production practices, just to name a few.
What do these global trends mean for U.S. employers? As we continue to battle the fallout from COVID-19, it will be prudent to look at how we can “future-proof” the workplace, too.
The Future of Contagious Disease Presumptions
While traumatic injuries such as sprains, strains and tears top the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of occupational injury types,3 illness directly related to exposure at work comprises approximately five percent of total occupational injury and illness incidence. It has been estimated in a separate analysis that on-the-job illness totals nearly $60 billion a year for both medical and indirect (productivity) costs.4
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the definitions for occupational illness were typically quite narrow and predominantly applied to specific industries in which the risk of exposure at work significantly outweighs the risk of exposure in one’s daily life. For example, viruses transmitted in healthcare settings, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmitted via needlestick injury, or infections arising from interactions with livestock in the farming or poultry industries.
But the legislative trends arising from COVID-19 have expanded how states are beginning to look at communicable diseases in the workplace – and where the responsibility for related medical costs resides. While the language and approach vary from state-to-state, 2021 saw a wave of proposals that would put permanent legislation into place allowing injured workers who contract a communicable disease in the workplace to file a workers’ compensation claim.