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Safeguarding the workplace from COVID-19: suggested preventative measures

10 March 2020
– 5 Minute Read


At the time of writing this article, the number of people in South Africa who have tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19) has now increased to seven.

While South Africa’s Department of Health has advised the public on certain precautionary measures that may be taken, it has not issued specific directives for employers managing the health and safety of their employees, customers, business partners and suppliers who may often be required to work in close proximity.

Here are 10 preventative measures employers may consider:

  1. Excluding people from the workplace: The General Safety Regulations issued in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act entitle employers to impose rules for entry into their premises in order to ensure health and safety, and they may legitimately exclude people on this basis. If a person displays flu-like symptoms, or is running a fever, the employer may require the person concerned to leave the premises and urge her/ him to obtain a medical opinion. 
  2. Disclosure of recent travel history: The employer may require staff, visitors and customers to complete a travel information form in terms of which details regarding international travel since December 2019 are provided. If the person has traveled to a Covid-19 hotspot, the employer may require the taking of a temperature test, but must obtain the person’s informed consent. (See 3 below).
  3. Temperature checks: If people entering the workplace have recently visited Covid-19 hotspots, or are exhibiting flu-like symptoms, or are suspected of running fevers, temperature checks may be done. The privacy of the individual should be respected in conducting the test, and the test must be done with the individual’s informed consent. Such consent does not need to be given in writing, but it is advisable to obtain written consent as proof. The manner in which the test is conducted must be as non-invasive as possible, and temperature screeners as opposed to thermometers placed in the ear or mouth, are recommended. If the individual objects to the test, the employer may legitimately rely on other relevant information at its disposal (e.g. excessive sneezing, coughing, whether the person has recently travelled to a location where Covid-19 incidents have been reported, etc.) and determine whether to allow the person concerned into the premises or not.
  4. No handshake policy: As Covid-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes and between people in close contact, it is advisable to minimise physical contact between people.
  5. Hand sanitizers and tissues: Making these available in public spaces at the workplace may reduce the risk of transmission. Employees should also be encouraged to carry hand sanitizers with them, and to apply normal precautions when sneezing or coughing, such as to sneeze or cough into a tissue or sleeve, and not into one’s hands, to wash hands regularly with soap and water, and to prepare food in a safe and hygienic manner.
  6. Protective equipment (such as masks or gloves): Those showing symptoms may be required to wear personal protective equipment (such as gloves or masks) if this would adequately address the perceived risk.
  7. Cancel or postpone travel to Covid-9 hotspot areas: It may be appropriate to postpone or cancel business trips to countries or cities with high incidents of Covid-19.  If this is not possible, the following guidance from the Department of Health should be communicated:
    • avoid contact with sick people;
    • avoid contact with animals, animal products such as uncooked meat, and animal markets;
    • wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and use alcohol-based sanitizers if soap and water are not available;
    • seek medical advice prior to traveling, if the person concerned is an older adult or traveller with an underlying health condition;
    • travellers from China and other countries with incidents of Covid-19 must, upon return to South Africa, carefully monitor their health and self-quarantine for 14 days after their return. If they develop fevers or display symptoms such as coughing or have difficulty breathing, they should immediately seek medical advice.
  8. Require remote working: If an employee is placed in quarantine, the employer may require the employee to work remotely, if this is possible.
  9. Take sick leave: In the event that the employee displays flu-like symptoms or runs a fever, the employee may be required to take sick leave. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act entitles employees to 30 days’ paid sick leave in every sick leave cycle. Where an employee has exhausted her/ his sick leave entitlement, the employee may be required to take annual leave. If no annual leave is available, the absence due to illness may need to be unpaid.
  10. Close operations: If alternative measures are not appropriate to sufficiently ensure the safety of employees or visitors, it may – as a last resort – be necessary to close operations. If employees are able to work from home, the employer would continue to pay the employees who are working remotely. Where remote working is not possible or feasible (e.g. in the case of reception staff, teachers, pilots, etc.) the employer will need to consider whether the employee’s absence will be paid or not. This is because the absence would not be as a result of any of the recognised reasons for employee-absence, such as annual leave, sick leave, family responsibility leave, parental leave or maternity leave. Rather, the reason for the absence is the employer’s need and obligation to ensure a safe and healthy work environment. If the temporary closure is for a short period only, the employer may decide to regard the absence as a form of special leave in respect of which the employees would be entitled to be paid. If the closure is likely to be for a prolonged period, it may not be possible to continue to pay the employees, and the employer would need to carefully consider its options.