Employers should use the prescriptions of the OHS Act when dealing with Covid-19.
The Department of Employment and Labour has published Covid-19 guidelines for South African businesses based on the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) and the Hazardous Biological Agents Regulations.
The department has appealed to employers who have not prepared for pandemic events to prepare themselves and their workers as far in advance as possible of potentially worsening outbreak conditions. Among its recommendations have been for employers to “go back to basics" by conducting a hazard identification and risk assessment to determine the level of risk exposure, and communicate to all workers.
Below is the department’s Covid-19 guideline, which is based on traditional infection prevention and occupational hygiene practices. It focuses on the need for employers to implement the following:
1 Engineering controls
This includes 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.
2 Administrative controls
These controls require action by the employee and employer. They include encouraging sick workers to stay at home, minimising contact among workers, clients and customers by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications (by having conference calls, Skype), and minimising the number of workers on-site at any given time (such as rotation or shift work).
Employers should also discontinue nonessential local and international travel, while also regularly checking travel advice from the Department of Health, the developing emergency communications plans, including a task team for answering workers' concerns and internet-based communications and, if feasible, providing workers with up-to-date education and training on Covid-19 risk factors and protective behaviours.
Employers should also be 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.
3 Safe work practices
Employers should have procedures that will reduce the duration, frequency, or intensity of exposure to a hazard. This includes providing resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. Some examples of how this come be done is by providing 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.
4 Personal protective equipment (PPE)
While engineering and administrative controls are considered more effective in minimizing exposure to SARS-CoV-2, PPE may also be needed to prevent certain exposures. Examples of PPE include gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks, gowns, aprons, coats, overalls, hair and shoe covers and respiratory protection, when appropriate. Employers should check the NICD website regularly for updates about recommended PPE.
“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,” said the department.
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 (compared to influenza virus outbreaks).
In the case of suspected exposure, employers must contact the coronavirus hotline in South Africa by dialling 0800 02 9999