The President announced the easing of the national lockdown restrictions from Level 5 to Level 4, which would allow more industries to commence with work. This means that more people will be able to return to their workplaces and the necessary precautions must be taken to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This being said, the President urged that those who can continue to work from home should do so.
If working from home is not an option and the return to work is permitted during Level 4 of the lockdown, strict health protocols and social distancing must be adhered to. Employers must ensure that there is a phased in approach when allowing employees to return to the workplace and that it is done to avoid or minimise the risk of infection.
What duties are placed on employers?
The Occupational Health and Safety Act provides that employers must provide a safe working environment to employees. It is on this basic core principle which the Regulations published on 29 April 2020 are based on.
Employers must ensure that the necessary measures are in place to minimise the amount of employees that are at the workplace, for example, to implement a rotation of employees or shifts, a staggering of workhours and so on. While at the workplace, employers must also ensure that contact between employees or between employees and the public is kept to a minimum. Alternatively, that the necessary precautions are taken to prevent infection, for example, to ensure that there is a minimum of one and a half metres between employees, have physical barriers between workstations and so on.
The Regulations also state that employers must, free of charge, provide sufficient quantities of hand sanitizers and a minimum of two cloth face masks to each employee. Employers must also ensure that all common areas, work surfaces and equipment are disinfected before work begins, as well as during working hours and after work.
What if an employee shows symptoms of the COVID-19 virus?
Apart from the duties mentioned above, employers must also take measures to screen the employees for any of the symptoms associated with the COVID-19 virus. On the other hand, employees must report to their employers if they show any of the COVID-19 symptoms.
If an employee shows any of the symptoms, the employee must not be allowed to enter the workplace or to report for work. If the employee is already at the workplace when showing these symptoms, the employer must place the employee in isolation and ensure that the employee is transported in such a manner that does not place any of the other employees or members of the public at risk. The employer must then take all possible steps to avoid the transmission of the virus, such as to disinfect that employee’s workspace, assess the risk of transmission and refer other employees who may be at risk for screening. The employer must also ensure that the employee is tested or referred to a testing site.
The employee is allowed to take paid sick leave and if the sick leave is exhausted, an application can be made for an illness benefit with the Unemployment Insurance Fund (“UIF”) if the employee and the employer agreed to the employee being placed under a 14 day quarantine period. If this is the case, the claim must also include proof of this agreement between the employee and employer.
If an employee showed symptoms, when can s/he return to the workplace?
An employee who showed symptoms or was diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, will only be allowed to return to the workplace if:
- s/he has tested negative for the COVID-19 virus;
- the employer ensures that the employee strictly keeps to the safety measures (such as personal hygiene, wearing of masks, social distancing and so on); and
- the employer closely monitors the employee for any symptoms.
In light of the above, it is clear that there are a lot of obligations on an employer to prevent and minimise the transmission of the COVID-19 virus at the workplace. However, there are equal obligations on the employees. As an employee who is returning to work during Level 4 of the lockdown, it is your responsibility to inform your employer if you are showing any symptoms and if so, do not return to work and rather take sick leave, the illness benefit or other arrangements made with the employer (such as working from home). It is also your duty as employee to ensure that you comply with the measures put in place regarding personal hygiene, social distancing and the wearing of masks.
Date updated: 6 May 2020