Measles – health and employment update

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A fuss about nothing? The current measles epidemic has been widely publicised across the media in recent months, but just how much of an issue is it for UK employers? And is it likely to affect areas outside of South Wales?

According to official figures from Public Health England (1), there were over 2,000 cases of measles in England and Wales in 2012, the highest level for over 16 years. It’s a small but not insignificant number. And confirmed cases are not limited to Wales; in 2012 the majority of confirmed cases of measles were in the North West, followed by the South East.

However, the cohort of people most likely to be affected is school children and teenagers and so the issue is unlikely to be significant for most British employers. That said, measles is a highly infectious disease and so employers cannot afford to be complacent.

Health information

The key message from health professionals is to remind people who haven’t already been vaccinated to get vaccinated. Further useful information can be found in the Health Protection Agency leaflet and from the Department of Health green book on immunisation.It takes 7-10 days to become unwell after having contact with someone with measles. It starts off like a bad cold but a red-brown rash, usually behind the ears, appears a few days later lasting for up to 8 days. You remain infectious for 4 days after the rash appears. Therefore it is safe to return to work 5 days after the rash appears. However people who still have a significant rash at 5 days might be uncomfortable about returning to work.

Key employment issues for employers

  • Policy: Think about your existing sickness absence policy i.e. is your policy clear about how to report sickness absence, whom employees should contact in the case of illness, within what timescale and how often they must keep in contact during sickness absence? (2)
  • Communication: Given the contagious nature of measles, if one of your employees is diagnosed as having it you should inform the employee’s immediate co-workers immediately of the diagnosis and, if they have not be vaccinated against measles, they should seek advice over the phone from their GP (and not go to the surgery). Of course, specific additional details relating to an individual employee’s health should not be discussed with fellow employees unless that individual gives his express consent.
  • Doubts over genuine cases: If you suspect that one of your employees is falsely claiming that he thinks he has measles, he should be reminded that he is subject to the company’s sickness absence policy and that he will be expected to comply with its on-going reporting requirements. Under most such policies, if an employee fails to comply with its reporting requirements, they will forfeit the right to receive company sick pay/SSP. Such an employee’s absence will also be unauthorised and they may be subject to disciplinary proceedings under the company’s disciplinary policy. In cases of doubt, you can also ask the employee if they have been vaccinated; they will not be carriers and so not capable of contracting measles if they have been immunised. If not vaccinated, you can ask the employee whether they have been diagnosed with measles by a medical professional. See above for information about the likely duration of the infection. Effective use of return to work interviews can also be an effective deterrent against abuse of sickness absence.
  • Employee’s child affected by measles: All employees have a statutory right to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependent. A dependent includes a spouse, partner, child, or parent or a person who lives with the employee (but not a lodger). The employee could seek to exercise this statutory right to enable her to provide assistance and/or make care arrangements for the sick child (assuming that the existing child care arrangements have broken down). The right to take emergency leave is a right to a “reasonable” amount of time off. The amount of time is not fixed. It is intended to allow an employee time to deal with an immediate problem and, if necessary, put other care arrangements into place. If you subject an employee to detrimental treatment for taking emergency time off or dismiss them or subsequently select them for redundancy because they took, or sought to take, emergency leave then they will be entitled to make a claim of detrimental treatment or unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal regardless of their length of service. Allowing a temporary period of flexible working could also assist both parties in these circumstances.
  • Measles and pregnancy: According to the Department of Health (3), measles infection in pregnancy can lead to miscarriage and pre-term delivery, but is not associated with congenital infection or damage. However, a very high proportion of pregnant women will be immune. According to the Health Protection Agency (4), measles is dangerous in pregnancy and the MMR jab cannot be given to pregnant women. If a pregnant worker has come into contact with a co-worker who has been diagnosed with measles she should be advised to seek prompt medical advice.


Footnote:

  1. Number of laboratory confirmed measles cases in England and Wales
  2. Amendment to policies and procedures with contractual status may require collective consultation with unions or employee representatives. See out Toolkit on changing terms and conditions for further details. Even if policies are not contractual, you should still consult with the workforce and give sufficient notice before implementing changes.
  3. Department of Health green book on immunisation
  4. Health Protection Agency leaflet - Measles Outbreak (August 2012)

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