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As lockdown restrictions ease and more and more employees return to work, the risk of infection and incidence of positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace are likely to rise. Employers should ensure that they know what to do in the event that an employee displays typical COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19.

We provide some practical guidance below, in light of the Occupational Health and Safety Direction published by the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL) as well as the various guidelines published by the Department of Health. 

Importantly, unless otherwise specified, the guidelines below apply to ‘workers’, being all individuals who work in an employer’s workplace, including contractors/ employees of contractors and volunteers. 

STEP 1: Do not permit the worker who complains of, discloses, or displays typical COVID-19 symptoms to enter the workplace or report for work. If the worker is already at work when s/he presents with symptoms or when it comes to the employer’s attention that the worker has tested positive for the virus, immediately isolate the worker and provide her/him with a surgical mask. Arrange for the worker to be transported (in a manner that does not place other workers or members of the public at risk) either to be self-isolated at home, or to be referred for a medical examination or testing.

STEP 2: Instruct the worker to self-isolate at home for 14 days. If the worker has not yet been tested for the virus, s/he should undergo testing. For mild cases, self-isolation is recommended for a minimum of 14 days after symptom onset; for severe cases, self-isolation is recommended for a minimum of 14 days after clinical stability (e.g. after oxygen support is stopped). Where the worker is an employee, this time off must be treated as paid sick leave. Where an employee’s sick leave entitlement is exhausted, such absence may be unpaid, but the employee may make application for illness benefits from the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

STEP 3: Assess the risk of transmission and disinfect the relevant area/s that the worker has come into contact with, including the worker’s workstation (and determine the need to temporarily close the affected work area/s for decontamination purposes).

STEP 4: Compile a list, with the input of the worker, of all other workers, clients, suppliers and other third parties with whom the worker has come into contact and who may potentially be at risk of transmission. Refer workers who may be at risk for screening.

Where a positive case is confirmed, follow the remaining steps:

STEP 5: Notify the National Department of Health/ National Institute for Communicable Diseases, using the hotline number: 0800 029 999 as well as the DEL. We understand that reporting to the DEL must be done by way of email, directed to the relevant Provincial Chief Inspector (email the Deputy Director General: Ms Aggy Moiloa, Zodwa.mbikwana@labour.gov.za). Provide administrative support to any contact-tracing measures implemented by the Department of Health.

STEP 6: Investigate the cause of infection/ mode of exposure, including any potential control failures (such as disinfection measures, personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing measures, education/ training, symptom screening measures, etc.) and review the risk assessment to ensure that the necessary controls and PPE requirements are in place and any identified gaps are addressed.

STEP 7: If the worker who has tested positive has come into contact with other workers at the workplace, assess those workers’ exposure to ascertain whether the exposure carries a high or low risk of transmission and instruct them as follows:

  • High Risk Exposure: close contact within 1 metre of a COVID-19 confirmed case for more than 15 minutes without PPE (i.e. no face cover/ eye cover) or with failure of PPE and/ or direct contact with respiratory secretions of confirmed COVID-19 case (clinical or laboratory).  In such case, the worker must self-quarantine for 14 days and perform daily symptom self-checks.
  • Low Risk Exposure: more than 1 metre away from a COVID-19 confirmed case for less than 15 minutes OR within 1 metre but wearing PPE (face cover/ eye cover). Also considered low risk if COVID-19 case was wearing a surgical mask (i.e. there was source control). In such case, the worker may continue to work using a cloth mask and complying with standard precautions and symptoms must be monitored for 14 days from first contact.

STEP 8: Where the worker is an employee and if the employee contracted the virus as a result of occupational exposure, lodge a claim under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. The Compensation Fund is currently finalising a Directive to replace the notice published on ‘Occupationally Acquired COVID-19’. Look out for further information on this once the Directive is published.

STEP 9: Communicate details of the incident, incident investigation and remedial measures with appropriate communication lines that exist within management, the health and safety committee and/or the COVID-19 committee, including any organized labour (taking care to respect the confidentiality rights of the affected worker) and implement improved control measures in consultation with such bodies.

STEP 10: Only allow the worker to return to work after completing the 14-day self-isolation period and, if the worker suffered from moderate or severe illness, undergoing a medical evaluation confirming fitness to return to work.

STEP 11: Require the worker to comply strictly with all personal hygiene, social distancing and cough etiquette measures, to wear a surgical mask for 21 days from date of diagnosis and continue to closely monitor the worker’s symptoms upon return to work.