Lawyers see limited legal options for workers sent in Zika's way

lunes 8 de febrero de 2016 08:00 GYT

By Brendan Pierson

Feb 8 (Reuters) - Employees of U.S. companies seeking to avoid exposure to the Zika virus likely have few legal avenues to either refuse travel to affected areas or sue if they actually become sick from the virus. But it may be a different story if such workers subsequently give birth to Zika-infected babies.

Since Zika was detected in Brazil last year, the mosquito-borne virus has spread to 33 countries, most of them in the Americas. The World Health Organization declared an international health emergency because of strong suspicions that infections in pregnant women may cause microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and can suffer developmental problems.

While the virus had typically caused mild symptoms in adults, it also has been linked to an autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome that can cause paralysis.

U.S. and world health authorities are not currently warning against all travel to affected areas, as they did with the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. They are, however, advising pregnant women to consider postponing travel, and all travelers to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites.

Adherence to the recommendations of the U.S. Department of State or the World Health Organization would shield companies to a large degree from claims they acted recklessly in sending employees into Zika-affected areas, lawyers who typically represent employers say. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further recommends that travelers wear insect repellent and sleep with mosquito nets in places where they might be bitten, among other measures.

"Your defense to any sort of claim is that you follow the public health guidance," said Mark Lies, a lawyer with the firm Seyfarth Shaw, which specializes in advising companies on employment issues.

Such advisories also mean workers probably would not be protected from termination if they refuse to go to an affected area, lawyers said. While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act gives workers the right to refuse dangerous tasks, those tasks must pose an immediate risk of death or serious injury.

Something like working with a "defective tool that has electrical sparks coming out of it" would meet that standard, said Ben Huggett of Littler, another employment law firm. Traveling to a Zika-affected area, on the other hand, would probably not, he said.   Continuación...