Right now, the world sits at home, contemplating weeks of inertia and prolonged boredom as it collectively attempts to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic. And yet, while no end in sight can currently be seen, at some point a vaccine will be developed, and countries across the globe will take their first steps to resuming the life we once knew.
Who better to lead the charge of establishing the ‘new normal’, than those whose understanding and practice of safety is woven into their very DNA? Eventually, ‘together but separate’ will no longer be sufficient for a business to continue effectively, and colleagues will need to interact in person.
The question is, how?
Occupational health and safety has always been a critical component in protecting employees’ lives. OHS professionals are especially vital in industries ordinarily considered dangerous (such as mining, construction and manufacturing). But their importance extends beyond these sectors – OHS practitioners are responsible for ensuring every workplace, whether an office, shopping mall or theme park, has implemented the correct safety measures to protect everyone who comes on site.
But what does ‘safe’ mean in 2020? Many businesses have had to scale back established safety practices, returning to the start to understand what is essential to running a safe company, with sufficient measures to manage and mitigate risk. The severity of the situation (with myriad businesses and sectors grinding to a total halt) means companies everywhere have to rethink their strategies, and accept that they will have to follow HSE regulations more rigorously, with no room for individual interpretation or application. It means enlisting the expertise and skill of qualified, skilled OHS professionals.
The duty of care
Employer and employees alike have always had strict legal obligations to follow with regard to health and safety in the workplace.
For employers, Section 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993 (OHS Act) requires them to provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health and safety of its employees. This duty includes:
- taking steps to eliminate or mitigate any hazard or potential hazard, before resorting to personal protective equipment (PPE);
- providing information, instructions, training and supervision to ensure the health and safety of employees at work, and
- enforcing these measures (as may be necessary in the interests of health and safety).
With Section 9 of the OHS Act, these duties are extended to people outside of those in employment, who are also affected by the employer’s activities.
For the employees in an organisation, they are required to take reasonable care of their own health and safety, as well as that of others who may be affected in the workplace. Employees who violate an employer’s health and safety rules, or who disobey reasonable and lawful instructions may be subjected to appropriate disciplinary action. Blatant disregard for such rules or instructions could potentially be grounds for dismissal on the basis of misconduct.
These obligations will now need to be applied through the lens of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, legislation will need to extend itself to be applicable within the current situation. In other words, where there is a danger of unsafe air (in the case of COVID-19 infected respiratory droplets), the employer must first attempt to eliminate or mitigate the unsafe air and as a last resort provide the employees (and must ensure that they correctly use) respiratory protective equipment that reduces exposure.
Businesses are therefore required to ensure that the air-conditioning systems at their premises do not expose the employees to the risk of infection. These are just two of many situations, where an employer will have to adapt current rules to match the risk posed by this new virus.
In the case of an employee, and their legal obligations, if they become aware of a situation that is unsafe or unhealthy, they must report such a situation to the employer as soon as practicable. In the context of COVID-19, this may include a suspicion that a fellow employee or customer/client exhibits flu-like symptoms or is running a fever. The employer should then take appropriate steps, such as requesting the individual concerned to submit to a temperature test, and to require the person concerned to leave the premises if need be. However, such testing may only be conducted with the individual’s informed consent.
Which is why it is important to remember that only ‘reasonably practicable’ measures can be taken. A proper assessment of what would be reasonably practicable must be made. If taken too far, the measures could be challenged for being unreasonable or inappropriate (or downright draconian). This needs to be balanced with the possibility that if they aren’t acted upon, when it is absolutely necessary to safeguard the health and safety of the workplace, an employer may be found to be negligent and liable for the consequences.
This new way of working presents a unique opportunity to those in the field of HSE, as well as anyone contemplating their next career steps. It’s the time to benchmark your current skills and decide, ‘where to next?’ NOSA can help you make that decision.
If you need help with ensuring your safety systems are properly implemented and aligned to the current COVID-19 regulations, click here.