The covid-19 pandemic has presented a new set of challenges in the workplace. The new challenges require the vigilance and effectiveness of shop stewards on the shop floor. The novel coronavirus disease is highly infectious and requires mass reorganization of the workplace to curb the spread of the disease among workers. The effectiveness of shop stewards during the crisis is anchored on how well they know the various Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) guidelines and directions.
The purpose of this article is to articulate the OHS direction to shop stewards and workers so that they understand their rights and responsibilities in terms of occupational health and safety, as well as the steps to take if an employer neglects to ensure a safe and conducive workplace during the covid-19 pandemic.
The directions on occupational health and safety gazetted by the Minister of Employment and Labour provide the minimum standards in the workplace to prevent the spread of the disease.
The occupational health and safety direction details the obligations of the employers, which include; undertaking a risk assessment and developing a plan outlining the protective measures in place for the phased return of its employees.
The OHS plans must include; a list of workers permitted to return to work and those that are required to work from home; the plan and timetable for the phased return of workers to the workplace; and the workplace protective measures required to be taken in addition to the OHS direction in terms of sector guidelines.
The employer is required to arrange the workplace in a manner that ensures that workers can adhere to social distancing. The workplace must be sanitised and decontaminated regularly and each worker must have access to sanitisers or facilities to regularly wash hands, as well as the provision of the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Workers who may present covid-19 related symptoms at the workplace may not be permitted to enter the workplace or report to work. If the worker is already at work, the employer must immediately isolate the worker and transport the worker to a public health facility in a manner that does not place other workers or members of the public at risk of transmission.
If a worker has been diagnosed with covid-19, an employer is compelled to inform the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) and the Compensation Commissioner per the Directive on Compensation for workplace-acquired covid-19. Also, the employer must investigate the mode of exposure to the disease to identify any control failures and to review their risk assessment. The employer may need to temporarily close the affected work area for decontamination using an incident-based risk assessment after consultation with the health and safety committee.
If a worker has been in contact in the workplace with a worker that has been diagnosed with covid-19, the employer must assess that worker’s exposure to ascertain whether the exposure carries a high or low risk of transmission between the workers.
If there is a low risk of exposure, the employer may permit the worker to continue working using a cloth mask whilst monitoring any symptoms. If there is a high risk of exposure, a worker must remain in quarantine for 14 days. The employer must place the worker on paid sick leave and if the worker remains asymptomatic, no further testing is required before returning to work.
The Department of Employment and Labour has indicated that employer compliance with the OHS direction is between 55-57 per cent. The lack of compliance has necessitated a new section in the OHS direction that allows workers to refuse to work due to exposure to covid-19.
If an employee has reasons to believe that the workplace presents a risk of exposure to covid-19, the employee must notify the employer and the health and safety representative. If the employer and the safety committee cannot resolve the threat to exposure internally, the labour inspector must be notified. The employer is compelled to comply with any prohibition issued by the inspector in terms of section 30 of the OHSA. No employer may make deductions from an employee’s remuneration in respect of anything which the employer is obliged to do in terms of the OHS direction.