Staff safety, and the obligations of the employer when an employee contracts coronavirus

16 March 2020,  Sinenhlanhla Khoza 5725
With COVID-19 now top of mind for all South Africans following President Cyril Ramaphosa's declaration of coronavirus as a national disaster, it is only natural that employers nationwide start wondering are their obligations are should an employee become infected with the virus - and how to offer the utmost protection in the workplace.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires every employer to provide and maintain, as far as it is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of the employees. The issue of coronavirus is not unique to this obligation imposed on the employer and the latter must therefore ensure that proactive measures, which will minimise and manage the risk of coronavirus, are implemented in the workplace.
  
The employer must first and foremost ensure that the workplace maintains proper hygiene and must encourage its employees to also practise good hygiene, which may include cleaning hands at regular intervals, increasing ventilation by opening windows or adjusting air conditioning, prohibiting handshaking, as well as the supply of hand sanitisers in workplaces where employees usually gather.  In addition, employees should be encouraged to limit travel to countries and provinces where cases of the coronavirus have been reported. Employees must therefore rather opt to use telephonic and video conferences as a means of communication with people outside of the workplace.
 
Furthermore, communication and the dissemination of information plays an important role in the workplace, therefore regular meetings should be held with employees aimed at educating them about the coronavirus, its symptoms and the steps that are required from them should they suspect that they may have been infected with the coronavirus or have been in contact with an infected person.
  
Should the employer be faced with an employee who has been affected by the coronavirus, the employer must place such an employee on sick leave. The employee, however, remains obligated to provide a valid medical certificate in order to get remunerated during such time. In the event that the employee remains on sick leave until that employee’s sick and annual leave is exhausted, then the employer may consider placing the employee on unpaid leave.
 
However, given the unique situation posed by the impact of the coronavirus, employers may, instead of granting unpaid leave as the third option, place the employee on special paid leave for a limited period. Unpaid leave can be imposed once sick leave, annual leave and special leave have been exhausted.
 
The employer, notwithstanding the prolonged absence of an employee due to the coronavirus, is still obligated to consider all possible alternatives short of dismissal, which may include the possibility of securing a temporary replacement for the infected employee or requiring the infected employee to work from home, depending on the extent of their illness and nature of the job performed by the infected employee.
   
Important is that protection should be offered to all employees affected by the coronavirus, and that such employees must therefore not be victimised or prejudiced due to this illness in any manner.

Any employee infected with the coronavirus or who has been in contact with an infected person, is obligated to disclose this fact to the employer to ensure that the health of other employees is not comprised - and failure to do so may amount to gross misconduct necessitating disciplinary action.  Employers are therefore advised to update their policies concerning the protection of the health and safety of employees in the event of the workplace being affected by the coronavirus so that employees know what is expected of them. 

The employer may not require or permit an employee who has been infected by the coronavirus to perform any work in the workplace until a medical practitioner has certified that such an employee may resume his/her duties.
 
Employers and employees are therefore encouraged to adopt measures and procedures that will not only ensure the safety of everyone in the workplace, but that will also ensure the continued efficient and productive functioning of the business. 

Watch this space for more on this developing story!
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