What to expect in the workplace

5 May 2020 by Nettalie Viljoen

The phased recovery of economic activity kicked off on Friday 1 May, with more businesses resuming operations on Monday 4 May, under specific conditions in line with level four lockdown regulations.

Addressing the nation on Thursday 23 April, president Cyril Ramaphosa said South Africa had to balance the need to resume economic activity with the imperative to contain the virus and save lives.

“Every business will have to adhere to detailed health and safety protocols to protect their employees, and workplace plans will be put in place to enable disease surveillance and prevent the spread of infection,” he said.

Ramaphosa said businesses permitted to resume operations would be required to do so in a phased manner; first preparing the workplace for a return to operations, followed by the return of the workforce in batches of no more than one-third.

Proactive steps

Kate Collier, a partner at the law firm Webber Wentzel, says as an initial step, the employer should conduct a comprehensive risk assessment to determine the likelihood of contamination in the workplace. This assessment should include a contingency and business continuity plan should there be an outbreak of the illness.

“Employers should act proactively within the context of Covid-19. Proactive employers will ensure that employees are protected and that business can continue to function as efficiently as possible,” she says.

The law firm advises that employers should consider appointing an internal committee of professionals. “The committee will be responsible for issues such as monitoring the spread of Covid-19, assessing the risk of contamination and taking measures to ensure that the workplace is healthy and safe. The committee should include representatives from the health and safety, human resources and risk and compliance departments of the employer,” explains Collier.

Dhevarsha Ramjettan, a partner at Webber Wentzel, says employers should consider updating its policies in the workplace to accommodate government requirements such as personal distancing.

“For example, policies would need to address the number of employees who would be able to smoke in a designated smoking area at any given time and related sanctions for breach of such policies or directives,” says Ramjettan.

Work from home

On Thursday, Ramaphosa said industries from all sectors and across all five Covid-19 alert levels were encouraged to adopt a work-from-home (WFH) strategy where possible, and all staff who could work remotely must be allowed to do so.

A government document also stated workers above the age of 60, as well as workers with comorbidities identified by the department of health, should be offered a work-from-home option or allowed to remain on leave with full pay.

Geoff Jacobs, president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says for them the move to working remotely when the national lockdown was announced was almost seamless.

“Within 48 hours, 90% of our staff were working from home, doing the same jobs they previously did in our central office,” says Jacobs.

He points out there are sectors, such as mining, manufacturing and construction, where working remotely is not possible.

“Here, heightened focus on occupational health and safety guidelines will ensure that employee health and well-being remain uncompromised,” he adds.

Paid or sick leave

So what if an employee contracts the virus? Collier says if a medical doctor places an employee in quarantine (14 days), the employee should receive a medical certificate and in such circumstances, the employee will be on sick leave.

Due to the nature of the illness, an employee with Covid-19 should not be permitted to return to work until that employee is cleared to do so by a medical practitioner.

However, should an employer require an employee to be quarantined if the employee displays symptoms of the illness whilst at work, the employer could consider such an employee to be on special paid leave away from the office (depending on the nature of the work performed by such an employee).

As an alternative to placing the employee on any type of leave, the employer could make it possible for the employee to work from home. The employer may need to put measures in place or assist the employee to work from home if that is the arrangement.

“If the employee can’t work from home, the employer will not be able to deduct the period of quarantine as sick leave or annual leave as it was made compulsory by the employer. This will be a form of special paid leave that is over and above any other type of leave,” Collier explains.

Testing

After the quarantine period and even if an employee does not display any symptoms, the employer may require the employee to be tested by a medical practitioner and to provide the employer with a medical certificate confirming the employee can return.

Ramjettan says that if an employer insists on a test as part of its control measures, it must pay for it.

“The circumstances where this will be necessary will be very limited. The employer must screen employees and if that indicates that testing may be necessary, employees can be referred to a testing centre,” she says.

If employees feel health guidelines are not being met, the first port of call is to utilise internal systems in the workplace, such as reporting to supervisors and health and safety representatives.

“Employees can report to the department of employment and labour, but most reasonable employers would want to action the concerns and fix any gaps based on an employee report,” she concludes.

Covid-19 rules in business sector

Across all levels

These department of health guidelines count across all business sectors and Covid-19 alert levels:

Industries are encouraged to adopt a work-from-home (WFH) strategy where possible, and all staff who can work remotely must be allowed to do so.Workers above the age of 60, as well as workers with comorbidities identified by the department of health, should be offered a WFH option or allowed to remain on leave with full pay. There should be workplace protocols in place that would include disease surveillance and prevention of the spread of infection. All employers to screen staff on a daily basis for symptoms of Covid-19, including a symptom check as well as temperature assessment. All employees to use a cloth mask especially where social distancing is not possible. Work environment to have sanitisers available or hand washing facilities with soap.Stringent social distancing measures should be implemented in the workplace. Across all sectors

Before any sector resumes activity, these conditions must be in place:

In addition to health and safety protocols, each sector must agree upon a Covid-19 prevention and mitigation plan with the minister of employment and labour, the minister of health and any other minister relevant to the sector. Individual businesses or workplaces must have Covid-19 risk assessments and plans in place, and must conduct worker education on Covid-19 and protection measures; identification and protection of vulnerable employees; safe transport of employees; screening of employees on entering the workplace; prevention of viral spread in the workplace; cleaning of surfaces and shared equipment; good ventilation; and managing sick employees.

Monitoring systems must be in place to ensure compliance with safety protocols and to identify infections among employees.

Five workplace safety tips:

Webber Wentzel, a leading full-service law firm, advises employers to consider the following proactive steps to further ensure safety in the workplace.

  • The employer should follow health advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the department of health and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD).
  • The employer should 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.
  • 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. The WHO has advised that 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.
  • Covid-19 poses a greater risk to employees with weakened immune systems and long-term health conditions. Vulnerable workers include pregnant and disabled employees. Employers should pay special attention to such employees.
  • Employees should review and update their emergency contact information.

Source: News24 at https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Local/Peoples-Post/what-to-expect-in-the-workplace-20200504