Negating HIV exposure
The risk of HIV exposure in the workplace is minimal, but environments such as mines, construction sites, factories and warehouses will always pose a higher risk of exposure, due to increased likelihood of accidents and injuries in these fields. ASTRID DE LA REY explores
Every company should have a clear policy or set of guidelines detailing the steps and precautions that need to be taken in the event of an injury. South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, so the logical route is to deal with every workplace injury as though there is a risk of exposure.
In a nutshell: first-aid equipment must be accessible, always use gloves, avoid any contact with bodily fluids (by using protective glasses if possible) and get a medical professional to take charge of the situation as soon as possible.
If an employee is exposed to HIV in the workplace, the employer should take immediate action. According to the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act:
1) An employee may be compensated if he or she becomes infected with HIV as a result of an occupational accident.
2) Employers should take reasonable steps to assist employees with the application for benefits including:
• providing information to affected employees on the procedures that will need to be followed in order to qualify for a compensation claim; and
• assisting with the collection of information that will assist with proving that the employees were occupationally exposed to HIV-infected blood.
Although it’s not yet written into the Act, best practice is for employers to assist the affected employees in getting immediate medical advice regarding antiretroviral therapy (ART). South Africa has one of the most progressive ART programmes in the world and the treatment is available to everyone.
It’s important for companies and employees to be aware of the urgency of seeking immediate ART guidance. The treatment is not as simple as taking daily medication and there are many factors that will determine the specific course of treatment for each individual.
If detected early, ART significantly lowers the volume of the virus in an infected person’s bloodstream, often to the point where that person is no longer contagious. Patients on ART stand a very good chance of living a long and healthy life.
Safety measures should be taken to try and prevent, or limit the risk of exposure to HIV infection at the scene of an accident, but once an employee has been exposed to the virus (or suspects that they have), the employer’s immediate response should be to ensure they receive expert medical advice as soon as possible to determine the right course of action.