The Department of Employment and Labour has appealed to employers to use the prescriptions of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act in governing workplaces in relation to the Covid-19 virus.
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.
“Section 8(2)(b) requires steps such as may be reasonably practicable to eliminate or mitigate any hazard or potential hazard before resorting to personal protective equipment (PPE). However, in the case of Covid-19, a combination of controls is required, although the main principle is to follow the hierarchy of controls.
“However, before the implementation of control measures, current risk assessments need to be reviewed and updated, taking into account the new hazards posed by exposure to Covid-19 in the workplace. This is in accordance with Section 8 of the OHS Act.”
The department 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.
It advised 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.
The department has developed a Covid-19 guideline, based on traditional infection prevention and occupational hygiene practices. It focuses on the need for employers to implement several controls:
Firstly, engineering controls, which entail 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.
Secondly, administrative controls, for example, encouraging sick workers to stay at home.
Thirdly, implementing safe work practices, which include procedures for safe and proper work used to reduce the duration, frequency or intensity of exposure to a hazard.
Fourthly, there is PPE. The department said that while engineering and administrative controls are considered more effective in minimising exposure to the virus, PPE may also be needed to prevent certain exposures.
The department urged employers and workers to use this planning guidance to help identify risk levels in workplace settings and to determine any appropriate control measures to implement.
It indicated that additional guidance may be needed as Covid-19 outbreak conditions change.
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 with traditional influenza virus outbreaks.
In the case of suspected exposure, employees or employers should contact the coronavirus hotline in South Africa at 0800 02 9999.