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ATLANTA-Managing the risks of AIDS and tuberculosis is important for all employers, not just those in health care, and educating workers is essential.

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome is the leading cause of death for all Americans 25 to 44, and this age group makes up half of the U.S. workforce.

That stark fact was delivered by a group of health care experts speaking at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. annual conference last week.

"The disease in the workplace is real and has an impact on all businesses," said Eileen Oswald, senior vp at Near North Insurance Brokerage Inc. in Chicago.

Glenn Klinksiek, director of risk management at the University of Chicago, graphically illustrated the risks of HIV exposure in the workplace.

An HIV-infected patient at a Chicago hospital "went over the edge" and injected a nurse with a syringe of his blood. Not only did this create the issue of tracking the nurse for signs of disease-fortunately she consistently tested negative for HIV-but there also was extensive media coverage and a need to deal with the reaction of the nurse's co-workers.

Although this example is set in a hospital, HIV/AIDS exposure is a problem for all areas of business.

Angie Hammock, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, a government organization involved in data collection and AIDS awareness programs, said a recent national health poll showed that one in seven people in the workforce reported they knew little or nothing about AIDS, while one in 14 knew a co-worker with AIDS, and one in 33 reported a medium to high chance of having the virus-dramatically higher than the current estimates that one in 250 Americans are infected.

Employers have certain responsibilities under OSHA standards implemented in 1992, Ms. Oswald said. These require employers to protect the workforce anywhere an employee could be "reasonably anticipated" to come into contact with blood or body fluids, and requires employers to take certain steps.

In practice, employers should treat all blood and body fluid spills as if they were infected, said Ms. Oswald, taking measures such as providing gloves, masks and mouthpieces for resuscitation attempts in first aid boxes.

The infected employee, though, has certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as reasonable accommodation, which employers should think about in advance. Advanced planning should include consideration of the employee's capabilities and the risk to others in the workplace.

More effective, though, is disease prevention and education. The CDC is actively working with businesses to provide education to employees on the risks of the disease in the workplace.

Five years ago, the CDC worked with businesses and labor organizations to design an awareness program specifically for the workplace. In 1995, it undertook a national benchmark study in the United States to find out how successful the program was proving. Although employers, particularly the larger ones, were doing a good job providing group health insurance and having a policy addressing AIDS and HIV issues, they fell down when it came to providing worksite education for their employees.

Just 6% of worksites with fewer than 50 employees and 32% of sites with more than 750 employees offered information-and only 4% of the largest sites offered worksite education for families.

"According to national studies, people are very clear about how HIV is transmitted, but not about how it is not transmitted," said Ms. Hammock.

Employee and family education are two components of an effective workplace HIV/AIDS program. The CDC model includes three other prongs:

A written policy complying with all local, state and federal laws.

Training about the policy.

Community service.

As part of its efforts to get business more involved with AIDS issues, the CDC will hold its first national AIDS in the workplace conference in Washington in September, when it also will present awards to businesses that have excelled in the AIDS awareness and education arena. And it is in the process of launching model programs with three major entertainment companies, Fox, Sony Corp. and Warner Bros. Inc.

The session was moderated by Mr. Klinksiek and coordinated by Elizabeth Simer, vp at Near North Insurance Brokerage Inc. in Chicago.