As more and more workers return to the office either part-time or full-time, every workplace should have a plan for what to do if someone in the office gets diagnosed with COVID-19.
Day 200 and something into lockdown and whilst we’re all hoping that the end to the pandemic is in sight, global trends seem to indicate that COVID-19 is here to stay, at least for a while longer. We understand that the constant changes in legislation and lockdown levels mean that it’s difficult for businesses to keep up with what’s legally required from them regarding office hygiene practices.
We also know - given the recent super-spreader event allegedly caused by a Cape Town nightclub - that some businesses are choosing to operate like it’s business as usual (under level 1 lockdown regulations nightclubs are still not allowed to operate).
But it’s not business as usual. At least not yet. Lockdown level 1 restrictions still mandate that “all persons who are able to work from home must do so” but the reality is that many workplaces are welcoming those colleagues who want to return. As lockdown levels have eased, we’ve written a number of blogs discussing office hygiene: how to get your office ready for colleagues’ return, how to greet co-workers, and a guide to legal requirements in the workplace during a pandemic.
The legal requirements for bringing colleagues back to work haven’t changed yet, which means that you will need a workplace plan for a phased 'return to work' prior to reopening. The workplace plan must include, amongst other things:
- a procedure for the compulsory screening of all persons entering the workplace
- measures to ensure that all work surfaces and equipment is thoroughly cleaned before work starts, regularly during the day, and again after work has finished for the day. All areas such as toilets, common areas, door handles, and shared electronic equipment must be regularly cleaned and disinfected.
- a procedure for the safe evacuation of persons from the workplace who present with symptoms of COVID-19
It’s important to also remember that according to the Gazette on Consolidated Coronavirus COVID-19 Direction on Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Workplaces employers must ensure that:
- there are adequate facilities for the washing of hands with soap and clean water;
- only paper towels are provided to dry hands after washing - the use of fabric toweling is prohibited;
- workers are required to wash their hands and sanitize their hands regularly while at work
We would argue that in addition, your workplace plan should also include the steps to be taken in the event that a colleague that has been coming into the office gets diagnosed with COVID-19.
5 steps to take when someone in the office is diagnosed with COVID-19:
(with thanks to the Western Cape’s Coronavirus FAQ response page)
- The employee must be advised that they cannot be allowed to enter the workplace or report for work until 10 days after symptoms are displayed, or - in more severe cases - 10 days after clinical stability has been achieved. In asymptomatic cases, employees can return to work 10 days after the date of testing positive for Covid-19.
- All other employees in the business should be interviewed to assess their level of exposure to the infected employee.
- Based on these interviews, the employer should identify close contacts of the employee and either send them for testing or self-quarantine, depending on whether they have symptoms or co-morbidities.
- The employer must notify the local Department of Health and the National Department of Employment and Labour immediately of a positive case of Covid-19 in a workplace. The Department of Department of Employment & Labour will decide whether it is necessary to close the business. If the business has been closed by the Department of Employment & Labour, it will need permission from the Department of Employment & Labour to reopen.
- The employer should disinfect the employee’s workstation, and any other workspace in which they were frequently present. Whilst these areas will be specific to each case, they should include the kitchen, staff room, canteen, toilet facilities, trolleys, baskets, door handles, work stations, computers and counters among others. Initial’s Specialist Disinfection Services use ULV fogging (extremely small droplets of a disinfectant) to enable the disinfection of large areas in a short time. If large surface areas and large numbers of objects need to be cleaned and disinfected then the work site may need to close temporarily while this is being done.
Professor David Nabarro, the world’s highest-ranking expert on COVID-19 and the WHO’s special envoy on COVID-19 (he directly advises the organisation’s director-general) said in a recent interview that ‘we really do have to learn how to coexist with this virus in a way that doesn’t require constant closing down of economies, but at the same time in a way that is not associated with high levels of suffering and death. ’
Professor Navarro goes on to say that ‘it works best if people are as on-side as they can be. That means really levelling with people and saying the only way we can do this is all of us pulling together. Physical distancing, face protection, hygiene, isolating if we’re ill, not going to work or off to the pub if we’re feeling rotten, and protecting those who are most at risk. If we can combine those various steps, what we call ‘doing it all’, then we can get on top of it.’
We couldn't agree more, and believe that employers and employees have to work together to manage the spread of COVID-19. Whilst employees have their responsibilities outlined in their workplace plans, employees also have responsibilities. We all should:
- Inform our employers immediately if we test positive for Covid-19 or have been in close contact with a positive case.
- Inform our employers if we are sick, and do not come to work (or go anywhere, really) if you are sick.
- Take responsibility for our own health by:
- Practicing social distancing and staying 1.5 metres from others at all times
- Washing or sanitising hands regularly
- Practicing good hygiene at home and at work
- Wearing face masks when in public
- Practicing all the above in our work space as well as in communal break areas, such as canteens and smoke areas.
Everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction and playing their part in ensuring that we all stay safe, and nowhere is this more important than in environments where there are large numbers of people in close proximity to one another, for long periods of time. Yip - you guessed it - the workplace.
Our Return to Work checklist below will help remind you of important hygiene considerations for your office.