On 5 March 2020, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize confirmed South Africa’s first positive case of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
While South Africa’s Department of Health has advised the public on certain precautionary measures that may be taken, it has not issued specific directives for employers managing the health and safety of their employees, customers, business partners and suppliers who may often be required to work in close proximity, said law firm Bowmans.
As Covid-19 continues to spread, it is imperative that South African employers and their employees work together to safeguard their health and safety, it said.
Bowmans said that section 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) requires every employer to provide and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of its employees.
This duty includes:
- Taking steps to eliminate or mitigate any hazard or potential hazard, before resorting to personal protective equipment;
- Providing information, instructions, training and supervision that may be necessary to ensure the health and safety of employees at work; and
- Enforcing such measures as may be necessary in the interests of health and safety. Section 9 extends these duties towards persons other than those in employment affected by the employer’s activities.
“The General Safety Regulations published under the OHSA prohibit an employer from permitting a person to enter a workplace where the health and safety of such person is at risk,” Bowmans said.
“Employers may accordingly impose rules on their employees in order to ensure a safe working environment and, in addition, it may place conditions on entry into its premises.”
Bowmans said that employers may exclude persons from their premises if they do not abide by those rules. This is similar to how entry to building sites may be subject to the wearing of hard hats and other protective clothing.
“In light of Covid-19, a legitimate entry requirement may be requiring the disclosure of recent international travel and subjecting individuals to a temperature test, if necessary.
“Any such test must be conducted with due regard to the individual’s privacy and the individual’s informed consent should first be obtained,” Bowmans said.
The firm said that the temperature test itself should be as un-invasive as possible, and screeners as opposed to thermometers placed in the ear or mouth, are advisable.
“Should the individual refuse to be subject to temperature tests, the employer may rely on other available information, such as persistent coughing or sneezing, and must then take appropriate measures.”