My recent novel An Unplanned Encounter gives an historic perspective on illnesses such as tuberculosis, diabetes, and bipolar disorder. Fortunately only one of these illnesses is contagious and it has largely been eradicated. At the time I remember that it was quite normal for employers to conduct medical checks on all new hires to ensure that they did not carry illnesses that would infect others and cause avoidable absenteeism and loss of wages. I remember the early 1980’s in San Francisco. As a Human Resources person I experienced one of the early cases of Aids. Some of the person’s co-workers wanted the firm to isolate a bathroom for his use only, and some wanted the person sent home for fear that they all would be infected. Medical advice kept the Aids victim at work, initiated a major employee communications program, and led to the termination of one work colleague who refused to work alongside him.
Spin forward 30 years and today’s medical privacy regulations make it almost impossible for companies to obtain medical information unless it is “job” related. Protecting the work place is virtually impossible until after an outbreak occurs. I agree that employers in the past may have abused the health information they obtained, and used it to support discrimination and other malpractices in employment. I wonder however if we gone a little too far in those states that prohibit employers from asking job applicants to take any form of medical examination or even complete a health screening questionnaire. The current outbreak of measles demonstrates how employers can react to the disease once it is in the workplace but also illustrates that there is little they can do to control its arrival and entry into the workplace in the first place.
The question is have we gone too far in preventing employers obtaining information that would make the workplace a healthier place? Are there not some contagious diseases that harm non-immunized personnel in the workplace that could be more proactively managed? The emphasis at the moment seems to be on mandatory individual immunization rather than on establishing quick response procedures that would protect workers who otherwise would be vulnerable. I recognize that there are pros and cons on this issue but would welcome reading a scientific report that investigates the wisdom or otherwise to do a little more to protect workers from contagious diseases that are both dangerous to their health and likely to require time away from work.