Suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic has become real. After weeks of holding our breath and waiting with such a feeling of uncertainty, we are in it. All of us are increasingly either know someone who has contracted the virus, or worse still, know someone who has passed on. In these difficult economic times, we also face the spectre of a business closure, just when we had opened our doors and started breathing a little easier as orders trickle in.
Suddenly one of your employees shows a high temperature while at work and admits to not feeling well at all. You isolate him immediately and do everything that you are supposed to do, according to the directives of both the Departments of Employment and Labour and of Health: You isolate the worker to your pre-determined “sick bay” area designated for this very purpose. Provide this employee with a surgical mask, which you have on hand for these cases. You transport the employee in a way that provides little or no risk to others, either to be tested or home for self-isolation. You disinfect the area and workstation where this employee works (Item 27 of the Direction, GG 43400 of the 4th June 2020).
The question is around what to do with all the co-workers of this affected employee. The Direction states that you must assess the “risk of transmission” and undertake tracing of staff the affected employee came into contact with. My suggestion is that it is the other way around. You undertake contact tracing and then do a risk of transmission and keep record of all you do in relation to this infection, to be included in a compulsory report. Take each traced contact and assess each individual situation as to whether their contact with the affected employee carries a high risk or no risk. This you can only do with the co-operation of the affected employee (be sure to reassure them they will not be victimised and press on them the importance of their accurate information in the prevention of the spread of the pandemic) . The health department also suggests you contact the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) on the hotline, for help 0800 029 999. You must also inform both departments of the incident. You should also compile an incident report, and make sure you involve the Health and Safety rep assigned onto the COVID-19 task force.
The question arises whether you should shut the workplace down. The risk of infection amongst your employees and directly affecting their health and safety is the paramount consideration, before considering the risk to your business due to further disruption. However, a pragmatic approach is required. If the contact of other staff with the affected employee was minimal, you are sure you had all precautions in place and you feel satisfied that the risk to other employees is negligible, then a proper risk assessment is all that is needed. Draw up a risk assessment sheet, with all the precautions listed: Did the affected employee practice social distancing? Where they in a properly ventilated room? Did they sanitise their hands regularly? Did they breach any of the safety rules to your knowledge (it is important that you involve the affected employee in this assessment and reassure them they will not be victimised for their co-operation with you). Were they in an environment surrounded by many people, or were they in an isolated part of the building? Did they receive visitors during the past week? From this risk assessment, you can draw an accurate picture of the risk to those staff members who have been in contact with the affected employee. Employees at high risk, should be sent home for self -isolation of 14 days. These employees may be able to work from home, but if this is impossible, they would be entitled to sick leave.
All other employees should be told to monitor themselves closely both at work and at home, and if they display any of the COVID-19 related symptoms to tell you immediately. In the case of these employees, you should still take extra precautions of distancing, face masks and frequent hand sanitising. Remember, your affected employee may return to work after 14 days, if they have a certificate from a health practitioner that it is safe to do so. It is no longer necessary to produce a negative test, for a safe return to work. However, your precautions upon their return, are still critical – one of which is for this employee to continue to wear a surgical mask for at least 7 days after their return to work.