COVID-19 and the resurrection of the economy: New directions
As the damaged economy is slowly getting back on its feet more employees are returning to work. The increased number of employees at the workplace does however increase the risk of Covid-19 infections and both employers and employees must avoid becoming complacent. Increased emphasis should be placed on abiding by the necessary health protocols as set out in the Occupational Health and Safety Act and other directives issued by Government in response to the pandemic.
On 1 October 2020, the Department of Employment and Labour issued Consolidated Directions on Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Certain Workplaces (“the Directions”). The Directions place additional, more stringent requirements on employers. For example, the Directions require employers to undertake a risk assessment, develop a plan outlining the protective measures in place for the phased return of employees and consult with any representative Union in respect of both the risk assessment and the plan. It is an open question whether Unions have provided support on this issue and whether they are sufficiently focused on it. In view of the legal obligations, employers should not allow Unions to delay obligatory responses.
Employers who employ more than 50 employees are required to submit both their risk assessment and a written policy to the Department of Labour within 21 days of the commencement of the Direction.
These employers are furthermore still required to minimise the number of workers at the workplace by utilising shift systems, remote working or similar arrangements and must submit a weekly report to the National Institute for Occupational Health setting out inter alia the details on screening of employees who are symptomatic and post-infection outcomes, which includes a return to work assessment outcome.
The Directions have changed an employer’s notification requirements in circumstances where an employee has been diagnosed with Covid-19. Employers are now required to notify both the National Institute for Occupational Health and the Compensation Commissioner and thereafter determine the need to temporarily close the affected work area for decontamination. Fortunately, the Directions have reduced the mandatory isolation period to 10 days.
In circumstances where employees refuse to work in view of a perceived imminent and serious risk of exposure to Covid-19, an employer is required to implement a procedure to attempt to resolve the dispute internally. If the matter cannot be resolved internally the procedure necessitates the notification of a provincial inspector within 24 hours.
As both the Courts and tribunals will inevitably be inundated with Covid-19 related disputes in due course employers must ensure that they familiarise themselves with the Directions and obtain the necessary legal advice. If you require assistance on the risk assessment, plan and policy please contact us.