According to the United Nations, approximately 65 million people have been infected with HIV since the epidemic began in the 1980s. Additionally, it is estimated that 25 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses. However, while the annual numbers of new HIV infections, as well as AIDS-related deaths are on the decline, HIV/AIDS still imposes a major economic burden. This may be attributed to the fact that HIV/AIDS poses a threat to a country’s overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For most countries globally, statistics indicate that the epidemic occurs most frequently within the 15 – 49 age group, which represents the majority of a country’s working class. To add to this situation, due to the stigma and discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS, many infected persons are unwilling to get tested or even disclose this information to their health practitioners or partners.

What Is AIDS?

AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), AIDS is a pattern of infections, which follows infection by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

What Is HIV?

The human immunodeficiency virus attacks the body’s immune system by destroying certain white blood cells that are essential for the body’s immune system to perform efficiently. Therefore, HIV weakens the body’s defences against diseases, making the body vulnerable to a large number of potentially life-threatening infections, as well as cancers.

How Is HIV Spread?

HIV can be spread via three major routes. It is transmitted when bodily fluids come into direct contact with each other.

  • Unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, oral)
  • Blood, such as through organ transplants, transfusion of unscreened blood and including through transfusions of unscreened blood, as well as the sharing of injecting tools (e.g., needles)
  • From an infected mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding

You CANNOT get HIV from:

  • Insect bites
  • Using public toilets
  • Sharing food or utensils
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Shaking hands
  • Hugging and kissing

Why Manage the Risk of HIV/AIDS in the Workplace?

In most countries, businesses are expecting the HIV/AIDS epidemic to have a negative impact on their operations, thus making it an occupational concern. HIV/AIDS can affect businesses via three ways:

  • Direct costs, such as labour increase. When a sick employee misses work, productivity decreases. Employee turnover and healthcare expenses also increase. A number of firms in the United States have reported that an annual cost of US $3,500 – 6,000 for each employee with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, labour supply and available skills is also reduced
  • Indirect costs, such as strained relations between workers and management
  • Intangible costs, such as damage to corporate reputations

Therefore, HIV/AIDS not only affects numbers in the workforce, but also results in significant added costs and reduced revenues for business. As such, it is important that the risk of HIV/AIDS in the workplace be managed. Furthermore, it is a good idea to manage the risk of HIV/AIDS in the workplace because:

  • The workplace is a good place to deal with the issue since the workplace provides an opportunity for raising awareness and education programs, as well as protecting the rights of employees (which is one of the items in our 9 Topics Every Employee Orientation Should Cover)
  • Leadership is essential in managing HIV/AIDS—employers are often viewed as leaders in local communities (see Leading Health and Safety at Work for more leadership advice)
  • It highlights a business’ proactive commitment to fulfill their legal, international and corporate social responsibilities in preventing the spread of the virus

Occupational Groups at Risk of Exposure to HIV

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, the following list indicates the occupational groups most at risk of exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus.

  • Surgeons, Nurses and Nurses Aides are at risk of needle stick injuries, cuts from sharp instruments and exposure through skin lesions to potentially infectious blood and body fluids
  • Physicians and Laboratory Workers continuously handle infectious samples. Doctors, in diagnosing HIV patients, carry out physical examinations and collect blood samples. Laboratory technicians analyze potentially infected samples
  • Ambulance Workers are potentially at risk because they attend to accidents and fatalities. Blood contact is a possibility for workers when removing injured people from the scene of an accident. The same can be applied to Police Officers and Firefighters
  • Dental Workers are exposed daily to the blood and saliva of patients
  • Embalmers, embalming the bodies of persons with a HIV infection presents a risk because HIV can live for hours in a deceased body. The same can be applied for Post-Mortem Attendants

Preventing the Transmission of HIV/AIDS in the Workplace

It is the duty of an employer to adopt the appropriate measures to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the workplace. The key components of such measures are:

  • Developing a workplace HIV/AIDS policy and programme that takes into account the ethical, social and economic dimensions of HIV/AIDS
  • Providing education and training regarding preventive measures with the aim of promoting awareness in order to prevent the spread of the disease and discrimination or stigmatization of HIV positive employees
  • Ensuring that the working environment is non-judgemental and non-discriminatory such that employment practices are based on the scientific and epidemiological evidence that people with HIV/AIDS do not pose a risk of transmission of the virus to co-workers through ordinary workplace contact; and that HIV-positive employees have the right to be employed as long as they are able to work and as long as they do not pose any danger to themselves, their co-workers and other individuals in the workplace
  • Ensuring workers’ confidentiality and privacy such that an HIV-positive employee is not required to disclose his/her status to the employer or anyone at work
  • Implementing prevention and control measures, such as the provision of personal protective equipment and first aid, as well as the identification of work activities in the workplace, which put employees at risk
  • Providing counselling and support for those employees who voluntarily disclose their HIV status

Be Aware, Take Care

While a cure is yet to be discovered, thanks to medical advances and research, employees with HIV/AIDS can now live healthy lives and continue to successfully contribute their skills to the labour force. However, for the moment, the best “cure” for managing HIV/AIDS in the workplace is arguably, to encourage employees to adopt behaviours and attitudes that can prevent the transmission of the virus.