The Malta Independent 8 December 2021, Wednesday

Is your workplace safe? European agency issues guidelines to help prevent Covid-19 transmission

Shona Berger Wednesday, 29 April 2020, 08:52 Last update: about 3 years ago

Several businesses and companies have had to adapt to different work arrangements due to the Coronavirus outbreak in Malta, as well as across the entire EU.

In preparation for the future re-opening of workplaces throughout Europe (once the health authorities in the respective countries deem it safe for such action to be taken), the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has issued a number of guidelines for a safe return to the workplace. 

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In Malta, some workplaces have remained open and people are still physically working outside their homes, while others are either unable to open due to legal restrictions, or have voluntarily decided to have employees work from home. Eventually workplaces will re-open once more.

On the 11th March the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic, thus several changes and measures have had to be considered and implemented in order to contain and control the COVID-19 outbreak.

The European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit said that "this guidance (by the agency) provides answers to practical questions that employers have, for instance on how to minimise exposure to coronavirus in the workplace, how to update their risk assessment, taking care of workers who have been ill. It will also help employers and businesses in managing the return to work and in providing practical advice to staff in non-healthcare environments."

Currently there is no vaccine for the coronavirus, thus the EU-OSHA have published a number of ways to prevent the spread of infection at the workplace. It is important that employers "place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to the workplace." Employees should also "clean their hands frequently, by making use of soap and water for at least 20 seconds or with an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60-95% alcohol."

Employers should also "provide their employees with tissues, disposable wipes, waste bins lined with a plastic bag - so that they can be emptied without touching the contents, soap, water, and alcohol-based hand rubs in multiple locations and in common areas in order to encourage hand hygiene."

Workers who have developed flu-like symptoms even a mild cough, low-grade fever (37.3 C or more) or have had to take simple medications - paracetamol/acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin are to stay home, and contact the public health service if coronavirus-related symptoms develop.

In addition, "frequently touched surfaces in the workplace such as workstations, countertops, or door handles should be routinely cleaned using cleaning agents. No additional disinfectants beyond routine cleaning is recommended."

With regards to the use of face masks, Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci said today that as country we are not in a situation or stage where the public will be recommended to wear masks when going outside as local transmission is not high." However, the guidance given by EU-OSHA regarding the workplace and use of face masks states that "these may be considered when working in closed spaces with other persons, or when it is not possible to maintain a safe distance from other people."

It is very important for workers to wear face masks properly in order for them to be effective and safe. The mask should "completely cover the face from bridge of nose to chin. Have clean hands before putting the face mask on or taking it off, touch only the cord or elastic at the back of the face mask when removing it - never the front. Dispose of the face mask in a proper container (if disposable) and lastly, wash the face mask after use with detergent at 60 0C (if reusable)."

Furthermore, face masks should only be considered as a tool which will help the individual to stay safer, however one should not use it as "a replacement for established preventive practices" which are extremely important. These include social distancing, cough and sneeze etiquette, hand hygiene and avoiding face touching.  

There have been cases where suspected or confirmed people have become unwell and believe they have been exposed to COVID-19, therefore the EU-OSHA stated that "if someone becomes unwell in the workplace and there is reason to suspect they may have come into contact with the Coronavirus, the person should be removed to an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people - isolating them behind a closed door is the best measure."

It is also crucial that whilst waiting for advice from the Health Authorities, the affected person must make sure to follow all the health and safety measures properly in order to have control of the situation as much as possible.

The EU-OSHA spoke of when employees are suspected of having gotten the Coronavirus and what to do if they were at the workplace recently.

Communal areas and surfaces of the workplace such as the entrance, offices, corridors, toilets, door handles, telephones and any other surfaces or public areas where the symptomatic individual has passed through or has touched the areas will have to be properly cleaned and disinfected.

In addition, "the waste that has been used by the individual including tissues, masks (if used), or wipes should be put in a plastic rubbish bag and tied when full. The plastic bag should then be placed in a second bin bag and tied. It should be put in a safe place and marked for storage until the result is available because if the individual tests negative, the rubbish bag can be put in normal waste."

With regards to organising meetings, "the employer should consider whether the meeting can be re-scheduled to a safer time, but if it cannot wait, one must consider doing it with the help of technology through a tele or video conference, so that no people are placed in a closed area, and ultimately it keeps everyone safer."

The employer should also make sure that "sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance during such times and that they should maintain flexible policies which permit workers to stay at home to care for a family member which might be vulnerable or sick." During such times this might happen more often than usual, especially due to the measures that have been put in place regarding the vulnerable.

The entity also said that since workplaces have been closed due to the Coronavirus, when they do reopen, the employer should make sure that once employees resume work after a period of closure, "a risk assessment is to be carried out, as are any necessary adaptations of the workplace and work arrangements."

In addition, the entity said that workers who are at a high risk are vulnerable and include older people, those with chronic conditions, those who are undergoing cancer treatment and pregnant workers. These are to be protected as much as possible. In Malta's case, such people have thus far been told to remain indoors.

Employers should also consider providing support to workers who are suffering from anxiety or stress on how to look after one's mental health and cope due to the situation, as such circumstances could increase these levels. Such concerns could include that employers would not want to or feel frightened to return back to work as they are concerned about an increased chance of infection at the workplace. However, employers should understand these concerns, and provide information about the measures taken and the support available to them.

 

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