In an effort to reduce the impact and spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace, the Department of Employment and Labour is appealing to employers to implement the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in South Africa has increased by 34 on Sunday to a total of 274, health minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed. A week into the declaration of a national state of disaster, President Cyril Ramaphosa says South Africa’s very existence as a nation is being put to the test.
In a statement released recently, Departmental spokesperson, Mr Teboho Thejane, said the OHS read with the Hazardous Biological Agents Regulations requires the employer to provide and maintain as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees.
According to Mr Thejane, although section 8(2)(b) requires certain steps to eliminate or mitigate any hazard or potential hazard before resorting to personal protective equipment (PPE), in the case of COVID–19, a combination of controls is required.
Before the implementation of control measures, Mr Thejane said the current risk assessments needs to be reviewed and updated because of the new hazards posed by exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
“The Department wishes to appeal to employers who have not prepared for the pandemic events to start preparing themselves and their workers in advance of potentially worsening outbreak conditions. The Department advises employers to “go back to basics” by conducting hazard identification and risk assessment to determine the level of risk exposure and communicate to all workers,” he said.
As of 09 March 2020, Coronavirus infections had spread to eight new countries – increasing to 102 countries affected worldwide.
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds. In humans, coronaviruses causes respiratory tract infections in nose, sinuses or upper throat. Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
COVID-19 Employer Guidelines
The Department of Employment and Labour has developed a COVID-19 guideline for employers.
This COVID-19 planning guidance was developed based on traditional infection prevention and occupational hygiene practices. It focuses on the need for employers to implement the following:
- ·Engineering controls – isolating employees from work-related hazards, installing high-efficiency air filters, increasing ventilation rates in the work environment and installing physical barriers such as face shields to provide ventilation;
- Administrative controls – these controls require action by the employee and employer. Examples of administrative controls include: encouraging sick workers to stay at home; minimising contact amongst workers, clients and customers by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications such as conference calls and Skype.
- Minimising the number of workers on site at any given time e.g. rotation or shift work; discontinuing non-essential local and international travel; regularly check travel advice from the Department of Health at: www.health.gov.za; developing emergency communications plans, including a task team for answering workers’ concerns and internet-based communications, if feasible, providing workers with up-to-date education and training on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviours (e.g. cough etiquette and care of PPE);
- Training workers who need to use protective clothing and equipment on how to put it on, use/wear it and take it off correctly, including in the context of their current and potential duties;
- Training material should be easy to understand and available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all workers;
- Safe Work Practices – these include procedures for safe and proper work used to reduce the duration, frequency, or intensity of exposure to a hazard;
- Provide resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene and the basic things to do in this regard will include, no-touch refuse bins, hand soap, alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 70 percent alcohol, disinfectants, and disposable towels for workers to clean their hands and their work surfaces, regular hand washing or using of alcohol-based hand rubs, and display handwashing signs in restrooms and;
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – while engineering and administrative controls are considered more effective in minimising exposure to SARS-CoV-2, PPE may also be needed to prevent certain exposures.
The recommended PPE include gloves, goggles, face shields, facemasks, gowns, aprons, coats, overalls, hair and shoe covers and respiratory protection, when appropriate.
Employers and workers should use this planning guidance to help identify risk levels in workplace settings and to determine any appropriate control measures to implement.
Additional guidance may be needed as COVID-19 outbreak conditions change. In the event that new information about the virus, its transmission, and impact, becomes available, you may have to modify your plans accordingly.
For employers who have already planned for influenza outbreaks involving many staff members, planning for COVID-19 may involve updating plans to address the specific exposure risks, sources of exposure, routes of transmission, and other unique characteristics of respiratory infections (i.e., compared to influenza virus outbreaks).
In the case of suspected exposure contact the coronavirus hotline in South Africa: 0800 02 9999.
Mr Thejane also announced that the Department have since decided to keep its labour centres opened, adding that they have also put in place a Crisis Management Team, which will be guided by the Department’s business continuity plan.
The Crisis Management Team will meet every day at 9am to assess the situation and put measures in place to promote health and safety of staff and its clients.
The queues at labour centres and services provided will be managed to adhere to the 100 people not gathering in one place at the same time.