Privacy Rights and HIV in the Workplace

It is certainly easy to understand both employee and employer safety concerns related to the dangers of HIV and other bloodborne pathogens. However, it is important for employers to understand that an uninformed reaction, even when based on a legitimate concern for safety, could easily turn into a discrimination lawsuit if an employer is not careful! The reality is that treatment for HIV has come a long way, and with today’s treatments and medications, it’s possible for someone living with HIV to achieve an undetectable viral load and significantly reduce or even effectively eliminate the risk of transmission.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has published an informational brochure for employers: HIV and AIDS in the Workplace. The reality is that workplace transmission of HIV is extremely rare, but even with the medical advances that exist today, there is still a lot of fear and confusion around how the disease is transmitted. As a result, employees living with HIV have substantial privacy rights and are generally not required to disclose their HIV status. When they do choose to disclose that status to a coworker, it is unlawful for that coworker to repeat that information to others without permission. Therefore, even if rumors are floating around, employers should not confront an employee about such rumors or ask the HIV status of any employee.

Instead, employers should always focus on creating and maintaining a safe work environment by essentially assuming that any incident of exposure to blood is a serious potential safety risk and respond accordingly. Of course, HIV is not the only illness or disease that could be transmitted by blood, so in a work environment where the risk of cuts is escalated, such as in healthcare, a restaurant, or even a warehouse, employees should be trained on first aid protocols that include always using gloves before assisting another employee with a bandage, and how to clean any area contaminated by blood. Effective precautions in dealing with exposure to blood and bodily fluids should be part of the required Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) and should always be followed when exposure occurs.

The Cal/OSHA division of the Department of Industrial Relations provides the following brochures to help employers comply with their responsibilities related to bloodborne pathogen exposure: