NATIONAL NEWS - On Sunday afternoon, Labour and Employment Minister Thulas Nxesi provided information on the preparations for the move to stage 4 of the lockdown and the partial return to workplaces from Monday.
The labour department said it had been working closely with the department of health and the labour inspectorate, which conducts inspections at all workplaces, including healthcare facilities, to ensure safe and hygienic conditions.
Nxesi said “employers must take measures to protect the health and safety of everyone in their workplace”.
“This includes employees of contractors, self-employed persons and volunteers. The process starts with a risk assessment in the workplace and a clear plan to implement the measures contained in the direction.”
He said every employer must:
- Notify workers of the contents of the Direction and how it will be implemented.
- They must inform employees that if they have COVID-19 symptoms they must not be at work and grant paid sick leave or apply for COVID-19 TERS benefits.
- The employer must appoint a manager (from within the existing structure) to address the concerns of employees and workplace representatives.
- They must take measures to minimise the contact between workers and between workers and the public to prevent transmission.
- They must minimise the number of workers in the workplace at any time through shift or working arrangements to achieve social distancing.
- The employer must provide employees with information concerning COVID-19 and how to prevent its transmission.
- They must report any diagnosis of COVID-19 at work to the Department of Health and the Department of Employment and Labour, investigate the cause, and take appropriate measures. It is a contravention not to do so as an employer.
- They must support any contact tracing measures initiated by the Department of Health.
- With regard to social distancing, workplaces must be arranged to ensure a minimum of 1 1⁄2 metres between workers. If this is not practicable, physical barriers must be erected and workers must be supplied free of charge with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Social distancing will have to be implemented in all common areas in and around the workplace to prevent crowding (including working spaces, canteens, meeting rooms, etc.).
“Employers must screen workers for symptoms of COVID-19 at the time they report for work, namely: fever, cough, sore throat, redness of eyes or shortness of breath (or difficulty in breathing); body aches, loss of smell or loss of taste, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue, weakness or tiredness.
“Workers should immediately inform the employer if they experience any symptoms while at work.”
Not doing so will be a contravention of the Occupational Health and Safety Act by the worker.
“More importantly, the worker puts themselves – and their co-workers – at risk.”
Workers with symptoms will have to be placed in isolation and arrangements made for their safe transport for a medical examination or for self-isolation.
Shops (and other workplaces to which the public have access) will have to screen all persons entering the workplace for symptoms.
“Employees who recover from COVID-19 may return to work after a medical evaluation, subject to ongoing monitoring, in line with instructions of the Department of Health.”
In relation to sanitisers and disinfectants, employers will have to:
- provide sufficient quantities of hand sanitiser with at least 70% alcohol content;
- ensure that work surfaces, equipment and common areas such as toilets, door handles and shared equipment are regularly cleaned and disinfected; and
- provide adequate facilities for hand-washing with soap and clean water and sufficient paper towels.
Workers will have to wear masks at work. Employers will also have to require members of the public entering a workplace to wear masks.
“Employers must provide each employee, free of charge, with at least two cloth masks to wear while at work or commuting. There must be suitable arrangements for washing and drying masks. Ultimately, the employer remains responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of PPEs. Where a risk assessment indicates, workers must be provided with alternative appropriate PPE (eg N95 or N97 masks) to provide a greater level of protection.”
Every workplace will have to be well ventilated to reduce any viral load.
In relation to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), employers will have to keep up to date with recommendations from agencies such as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the National Institute for Occupational Health on the appropriate steps to take to prevent transmission in their workplaces and for the provision of PPE.
“In relation to enforcement, Labour Inspectors are empowered to promote, monitor and enforce compliance with the Direction. An employer who does not comply with the Direction may be ordered to close their business.
“In addition, as the failure to comply fully with the OHSA (Occupational Health and Safety Act) is a criminal offence, failure to take the necessary measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 may result in criminal prosecution.”
Investigation and Enforcement Services
Nxesi revealed that to date Labour Inspectors had carried out some 2,226 inspections during the lockdown. This included public sector premises and 86 health facilities. The rate of compliance by employers had increased from 50% to over 60% over the period of the lockdown.
“The Inspectors inform me that basic hygiene measures and PPEs are increasingly evident in most workplaces. Where this was not the case, on average of 9 Prohibition Orders were issued per day – leading to total or partial shutdown.”
He offered the following info about the inspectors:
- Currently there are 170 Inspectors in the field (out of a total of 200).
- In the 2019 budget, provision was made to employ an additional 500 Inspectors. This process is now being expedited to meet the demands of the pandemic. The Department is also looking at using accredited, registered inspection bodies to increase its reach.
- It would be impossible to inspect every one of the 1.8 million businesses. Therefore, Inspectors rely upon the support of individual workers, unions and socially responsible employers in providing vital information – which in turn allows the Inspectors to focus on hotspots and to make an example of particular offenders. In turn, this leads to greater self-regulation and compliance.
He said workers also had a responsibility to wash or sanitise their hands, to wear the PPEs provided, to keep their workstations clean, and to follow directives in relation to health and safety.
He said one their major tasks as the department during the lockdown had been to repurpose the UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund) to facilitate the flow of benefit payments to mitigate the effects of lay-offs.
“The introduction of the COVID-19 TERS Benefit Scheme and the attendant massive increase in claims required that we completely redesign the architecture and supporting systems of the UIF claims process.”
He listed the changes as follows:
- Shifting from individual walk-in claims to mass distribution hubs through online applications supported by the Call Centre for enquiries;
- this required engagement with the social partners – labour and businesses – at Nedlac – and signing Memoranda of Agreements with all the employers and bargaining councils.
This meant initial delays, but he reported the following progress:
- Bulk disbursements of COVID-19 TERS benefits of R5.3 billion through bargaining councils and employers – reaching 98 thousand employers and 1.1 million workers.
- A further R2.4 billion in COVID-19 TERS benefits has been cleared for payment on Monday morning to 29,000 employers.
- There are still a number of outstanding claims which are still to be processed – from 74,000 employers, representing 481,000 workers and
- an amount of R1.9 billion in benefits. SARS has already validated 87% of these claims and these shall be paid next week.
“Let me emphasise: it would not have been possible to shift to a system of mass distribution hubs without the active support of business.”
- Ordinary UIF claims have continued uninterrupted during the lockdown – with some R 1 billion disbursed to 65 thousand claimants.
- Remember, also, that each recipient is probably supporting a family and dependants – greatly multiplying the reach of UIF benefits.
- To give assurance that, despite these large disbursements, the Fund is able to meet its obligations, some R13.8 billion of investments has been freed up to strengthen the liquidity of the Fund.
- In addition to the systems assistance we have already received from SARS and the private sector, the company – Interfile – has offered to run the UIF SMS service at no cost. This is an important part of our service particularly to those working in isolated environments – such as domestic and farm labour.
“Challenges remain, particularly where employers are not assisting their employees to claim.”
- In response to the declaration of a pandemic, the CF has established its Crisis Management Committee and developed a COVID-19 Response Plan to focus on COID Services (Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases), Medical Benefits, Rehabilitation and Account Payable.
- Dedicated National and Provincial Response Teams have been established, comprising medical professionals and claim processors, to manage COVID-19 claims.
- Like the UIF, the Compensation Fund has opted for online applications, backed by a Call Centre, for the protection of claimants and staff, and to streamline processing and payment.
- Few claims have been registered as yet. This will change as COVID-19 contracted in the workplace will be compensated as an occupational disease.
Supported Employment Enterprises
- These factories have been repurposed to supply PPEs (masks and gowns) as well as hospital linen
- They are already supplying PPEs to municipalities and provinces,
- And are in talks to supply the Department of Health – particularly to equip the field hospitals which are under way.