Covid-19 in the Workplace:
Legal Implications

 A summary of the Department of Labour (DoL) guidelines to deal with COVID-19 in the workplace – 17 March 2020

In March 2020, South Africa was declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act, to focus on preventing and reducing the outbreak of COVID-19.[1] Apart from travel bans imposed on foreigners, South African citizens returning from high-risk countries will be tested and self-isolated or quarantined.[2] As the numbers increased, South African employers implemented strategies like working remotely from home and others to mitigate the spread of the infection.

The Department of Labour (DoL) released guidelines[3] on 17 March 2020, to deal with COVID-19 in the workplace.

  • The DoL advised employers to classify worker exposure to very high, high, medium and low-risk exposure. For example, very high would be health workers, doctors; high would be ambulance personnel; medium would be those jobs within two (2) metres of people who may be infected and low would be within two (2) metres of the general public.
  • In compliance with the rules and regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993, employers are required to provide and maintain safe[4] working environments, without risks to the health of employees.
  • Employers are also required to conduct hazard and risk assessments to determine the level of risk exposure and communicating to all employees so as to eliminate or mitigate the hazard or potential hazard before resorting to protective clothing and equipment (PPE).[5]
  • In addition to the DoL guidelines, employers are advised to apply the World Health Organization Guidelines on Workplace Readiness for COVID-19 which unpacks, amongst other things, actions to be taken before, during, and after a meeting amongst others.

Engineering Controls Guideline

Applies to isolating employees from work-related hazards. These controls reduce exposure without solely relying on employee behavior.

  • Installing high-efficiency air filters (not to be relied on as the most appropriate in isolation of other controls).
  • Increasing ventilation rates in the work environment.
  • Installing physical barriers such as face shields.
  • Specialized negative pressure ventilation in some settings (e.g. airborne infection isolation rooms in healthcare settings and autopsy rooms in mortuary settings).

Administrative Controls Guideline

Requires action by the employer and employee.

  • Encouraging sick workers to stay home.
  • Minimizing contact amongst employees, clients and customers by using virtual communications for example conference calls.
  • Minimizing the number of employees on-site at any given time.
  • Discontinuing non-essential local and international travel.
  • Regularly check travel advice from the Department of Health website[1].
  • Developing emergency communication plans including task team for answering workers’ concerns and internet-based communications.
  • If feasible, provide up-to-date education and training to employees on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviours (e.g. cough etiquette and care of PPE).
  • Training workers who need to use PPE on how to don, use or wear PPE and remove it correctly in the context of employee’s current and potential duties.
  • Employers should ensure that the training material is easy to understand and available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all employees.

[1] http://www.health.gov.za

Safe Work Practices Guideline

Includes procedures for safe and proper work to reduce duration, frequency and intensity of exposure to the hazard.

  • Provide recourses and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene, for example no-touch refuse bins, hand soap, alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least seventy (70) percent alcohol, disinfectants, and disposable towels for workers to clean their hands and their work surfaces.
  • Requiring regular hand washing or use of alcohol-based hand rubs. Workers should always wash hands when they are visibly soiled and after removing any PPE.
  • Display handwashing signs in restrooms.

PPE Guidelines

While engineering and administrative controls are considered more effective in minimizing exposure, PPE may also be required to prevent certain exposures. Examples of PPE include gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks, gowns, aprons, coats, overalls hair and shoe covers, and respiratory protection, when appropriate.

  • While correctly using PPE can help prevent some exposures, it should not take the place of other prevention strategies.
  • Employers should check the National Institute of Communicable Diseases[1] website regularly for updates about recommended PPE.
  • All types of PPE must be:
    • selected based upon the hazard to the worker,
    • properly fitted (e.g., respirators),
    • consistently and properly worn when required,
    • regularly inspected, maintained, and replaced, as necessary,
    • properly removed, cleaned, and stored or disposed of, as applicable, to avoid contamination of self, others, or the environment.

[1] http://www.nicd.ac.za

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Is there any reprieve for distressed companies?

A period of reprieve will be considered for companies not to contribute to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). The Funds Temporary Employer/ Employee Relief Scheme will be used to ensure that workers are not laid off.[1]

What will happen if companies decide to close for a short period as a precautionary measure?

In instances where companies decide to close for a short period as a precautionary measure, the short-term UIF benefit will apply. If a company contemplates a short-term shutdown, they are required to inform the UIF.

What leave applies where a COVID-19 infected employee self-quarantined for fourteen (14) days?

Where an employee is self-quarantined in this way, the leave will be recognized as a special leave which will be fully paid on condition that the reason for the quarantine meets the requirements and that the employee can apply for UIF benefits.[2]

What leave applies where a COVID-19 infected employee is required to self-quarantine for more than fourteen (14) days?

In an event that an employee is required to be quarantined in this way, as a result of having travelled or been in contact with an infected person, such a leave will be recognized as a special leave and that employee will be eligible to apply for UIF benefits.[3]

[1] http://www.labour.gov.za/companies-facing-distress-due-to-the-pandemic-to-be-assisted-employment-and-labour

[2] Ibid.

[3] Idem.

Written by:

Advocate Nasreen Dawood
Non-executive Director, 21st Century

[email protected]

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