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Increased global risk for infectious disease epidemics, coupled with state-level legislative trends expanding presumptions for communicable disease, mean that the burden of related costs may fall more heavily on employers and the workers’ compensation system.

According to the report in RxInformer, the COVID-19 pandemic forced employers 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.

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.” 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.

While traumatic injuries such as sprains, strains and tears top the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of occupational injury types, 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.

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.

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.

Presumptions aside, communicable diseases – even those that are not deemed occupational – cost employers significantly in terms of employee lost time and productivity. Take the common flu virus. Pre-pandemic, the 2018-2019 productivity loss estimate due to influenza was $17.6B, based on a 4-day work loss assumption per sick employee.