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Are Employers Liable If Their Workers Contract Zika?

According to a recent study, Charlotte and Raleigh are among the 30 U.S. cities most likely to be seriously affected by the Zika Virus. A mosquito-borne illness that can be transmitted through sexual activity, Zika has been linked to a spate of severe birth defects that compromise a child's proper development.

The virus began spreading rapidly through South America in 2015, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. With no vaccine yet developed, Zika has continued to proliferate. The first cases in the U.S. were reported earlier this year, in Florida, and the medical research site HealthGrove predicts that North Carolina will soon be afflicted.

One major question emerging from this scenario is whether employers in the state will be responsible for workers that contract Zika while on-the-clock.

How can employers protect themselves-and their employees-from risk?

Mondaq, a firm specializing in legal information, has noted that employees exposed to Zika may be able to hold their employers liable. It seems evident that construction workers and others who labor outdoors will bear the highest risk of exposure. And while Mondaq offers a number of guidelines for protecting employees-provide them proper clothing and mosquito repellent, and so on-it is unlikely that the disease will be warded off completely.

University researchers face exposure

Likewise, laboratory researchers are particularly vulnerable; as they endeavor to develop treatments, they often handle samples of the disease directly. An article published earlier this month in Occupational Safety & Health Magazine details that while "laboratory workers are doing some of the most important work they have ever done in searching for cures, [they are] also potentially being exposed to these hazards more than ever before."

The article goes on to note that, despite long-standing regulations, many laboratories fail to comply with safe workplace standards, leaving researchers at-risk. In such circumstances, the universities and other institutions that employ them must be held responsible when infection arises.

Evidence suggests that Zika's arrival in North Carolina is imminent. And it will quickly present as an occupational hazard across many industries. It is imperative that employers act swiftly to safeguard their workers, or else undertake to pay their medical fees and other related costs.

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