COVID-19 Virus in the workplace
From a health & safety perspective, what legal obligations does an employer have in light of the global outbreak of Covid-19?
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 places an express obligation on the employer to maintain a working environment that is safe and healthy. On the issue of a healthy working environment, the employer must ensure that the workplace is free from any risk to the health of its employees as far as it is reasonably practicable. Within the context of Covid-19, there is a clear obligation on the employer to manage the risk of contamination in the workplace.
Practically, the employer can ensure a healthy working environment by ensuring that the workplace is clean and hygienic, promoting regular hand-washing by employees, promoting good respiratory hygiene by employees and keeping employees informed on developments related to Covid-19.
Employers should consider the following proactive steps given the scale of the illness globally –
- Follow health advice and information: the employer should follow health advice from the WHO (as an international source) and the Department of Health and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (as local sources).
- Communicate with employees: the employer should consistently provide updates on Covid-19 to employees and its approach at work regarding attendance and preventing the spread of infection. The employer may also wish to display posters that provide information on the illness and hygiene.
- Prevent the spread of infection: the employer should consider that there are adequate facilities for employees to wash and/or sanitise their hands regularly within the workplace. If it becomes necessary, the employer may introduce a designated area in the workplace where employees may self-isolate if they experience symptoms whilst at work. The WHO has advised that, in countries where the illness has started spreading, employees with a mild cough or low-grade fever (37.3 or more) should be encouraged to stay at home and seek medical attention immediately.
- Identify vulnerable workers: Covid-19 poses a greater risk to employees with weakened immune systems and long-term health conditions. Vulnerable workers include pregnant employees and disabled employees. Employers should pay special attention to such employees.
- Update emergency contact information: employees should be required to review andIn addition to following the rules and regulations of OHSA, we strongly recommend that Employers adopt contingency plans or alternative working arrangements for Employees by consulting with its Employees about the Virus and communicating with its Employees regarding the measures the Employer will put in place to secure the working environment against the infiltration of the Virus and its Employees becoming infected.We recommend that these measures should include as little as possible physical contact with colleagues, clients, suppliers, contractors, customers, etcetera. Indeed, communication for various reasons between the aforementioned persons and the like for business needs and operations are of course required for most businesses to remain economically viable. However, we recommend that instead of physical consultation and communication; consultations and communication by way of conference call, internet or mobile telephone facilities should be implemented instead as a preventative measure until further notice. Further preventative measures in terms of health and safety in the workplace or working environment and in alignment with the OHSA legislation requirements in the case of the Virus include supplying your Employees with hand sanitizer and other hygiene equipment as well as implementing rules for sanitation throughout the working day within the working environment and notably informing and educating your Employees with reading material on preventative measures and treatment. Simply implementing a no handshake or physical contact policy as an interim preventative measure can save lives during this time.Update their emergency contact information.