The Department of Employment and Labour (DOL) issued the COVID-19 directive on Health and Safety in the Workplace on 28 April 2020, stipulating measures that must be taken by employers to protect the health and safety of workers and members of the public entering their workplace or exposed to their working activities.
Employers must do a risk assessment before resuming operations, taking into account the circumstances of their specific workplace and what can reasonably be done to protect workers and others from exposure to COVID-19.
When conducting a risk assessment employers should address the levels of risk associated with various worksites and job tasks workers perform at those sites.
Under the regulations employers are required to conduct a risk assessment by:
1. Identification of exposure levels
Identify risk levels in the workplace and determine any appropriate control measures that can be implemented to minimise the exposure.
Identify where, how, and at what sources employees might be exposed to the COVID-19 virus while at the workplace. The risk assessment procedure varies depending on the nature of the work performed or type of workplace.
The risks can be categorised into the following levels of exposure:
- Very high and high exposure risks exist amongst healthcare workers for which this directive does not apply.
- Medium exposure risk includes jobs that require frequent or close contact with people who may be infected but who are not known or suspected to be infected with the virus. This includes people who have contact with the general public.
- Low exposure risk exists where the job does not require contact with people known or suspected to be infected with the virus, nor do they have close contact with the general public.
Employers must consider the risks for the company as a whole, including categories of all workers in the business who may fall under different exposure classifications. Based on their exposure classification, the control measures put in place to address the risk will differ.
The employer should also consider employees’ individual risk factors like older age and relevant chronic medical conditions and put together controls necessary to address those risks.
2. Identification of ‘high contact’ activities
Identify activities within the workplace that require employees to be exposed to the general public and co-workers and consider strategies to minimise face-to-face contact. The employer must ensure minimal contact between workers and as far as practicable ensure that a distance of at least 1,5 meters between workers while they are working is maintained.
Employers are required to limit customers’ and the public’s access to the worksite, or restrict access to only certain workplace areas.
Where it is impossible to restrict or minimise high contact activities, employers should put controls in place to address the risk of employees contracting the virus like installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards, where feasible.
3. Identification of vulnerable workers and special measures for their protection, including protection against unfair discrimination or victimisation
Conduct a risk assessment of employees who are vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. Employers must consider the characteristics of the worker, features of the workplace and the nature of the work when determining whether the employee can be considered a vulnerable employee.
Employers should encourage employees who are over 60 years old or have underlying conditions to work from home.
Employers must put in place symptom screening and as part of the risk assessment plan provide steps to take if an employee presents with COVID-19 symptoms. Employers must:
- provide a minimum of two cloth masks per employee;
- provide hand sanitisers;
- disinfect work surfaces and equipment;
- ensure adequate facilities for washing hands with soap and clean water, making use of only paper towels; and
- require workers to wash and sanitise their hands regularly.
Employers are required to review and update risk assessments on a regular basis. Employers who employ more than 500 people are required to submit the risk assessment report together with a written policy concerning the protection of the health and safety of its employees from COVID-19 as contemplated in section 7(1) of Occupational Health and Safety Act 1993 to its health and safety committee and to the Department of Employment and Labour.
Employers who resume operations without a proper risk assessment and implementation of necessary protection measures, risk fines or imprisonment and if an employee is exposed to COVID-19 while at work the business might have to shut down their operation.