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Covid-19 lockdown: guidelines on vulnerable employees

Covid-19 lockdown: guidelines on vulnerable employees

Dear employer

The Department of Health issued guidelines on how to deal with vulnerable employees in the workplace once employees return to work after the lockdown.

These guidelines identify special measures, as contemplated in the Department of Employment and Labour’s Covid-19 OHS regulations, that should be implemented by employers in respect of vulnerable employees.

In terms of the guidelines, employers are to implement a process to identify employees who:

  • are at a high risk of developing serious illness due to Covid-19; or
  • reside with or care for a person(s) that are a high risk for severe illness.

These guidelines proceeds to identify the following as a non-exclusive list of major risk categories:

  1. 60 years and older;
  2. Severe obesity (a body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher);
  3. More than 28 weeks pregnant (and especially with any of the co-morbidities listed below); 
  4. Immunocompromised as a result of cancer treatment, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications;
  5. One or more of the following underlying commonly encountered chronic medical conditions (of any age) particularly if not well controlled:
  • chronic lung disease: moderate to severe asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, active TB and post-tuberculous lung disease (PTLD);
  • diabetes (poorly controlled) or with late complications;
  • moderate/severe hypertension (poorly controlled) or with targeted organ damage;
  • serious heart conditions: heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies, pulmonary hypertension; congenital heart disease;
  • chronic kidney disease being treated with dialysis; and/or
  • chronic liver disease including cirrhosis.

If the employee suffers from any of these illnesses, the employee should be assessed by his/her treating doctor and if the employee is not able to afford this cost, the employer is expected to carry this cost.

The doctor should provide a confidential note to the employer indicating the presence of one or more of these conditions, without providing a diagnosis. Should the employee suffer from a different, unlisted condition which renders him vulnerable, the doctor would have to provide a motivation.

In terms of the guide the employer has the following responsibilities:

  • Draft a policy with procedures to address the specific needs of vulnerable employees beyond the risk control measures for normal employees.
  • These procedures should be aimed at reducing or eliminating the risk of potential exposure to Covid-19.

If elimination or reduction of the risk is not possible, the employer should, in consultation with the employee, explore other temporary workplace accommodation, without reducing the employee’s benefits, to reduce the risk of infection. These measures include the following:

  • provision of alternative temporary placement / redeployment to a different role and responsibility which has a negligible risk for transmission;
  • the restriction of certain duties (such as not allowing them to perform high risk procedures);
  • protective isolation (e.g. providing them with a dedicated, clean office, etc.);
  • the provision of specific Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) appropriate to the risk of the task/activity identified in the workplace risk assessment and adherence to PPE usage protocols;
  • implementation of stricter physical distancing protocols (including staggering of shifts), barriers or additional hygiene measures; and
  • the limitation of duration of close interaction with clients, colleagues and/or the public and reducing external risks (such as the use of public transport) by providing alternative transport arrangements where feasible.

Should none of these steps be possible, the employer should consider allowing the employee to work from home.

Alternatively, if none of the above steps are feasible and the employee cannot work from home, the employer could utilise the following measures:

  • grant employee temporary incapacity, for the period of the COVID-19 epidemic;
  • should this not be possible, the employee should be able to utilise his/her sick leave if appropriate, as advised by the treating doctor/occupational medical practitioner;
  • should sick leave be exhausted, the employee should be able to utilise his/her annual leave;
  • where applicable, the eligibility of the employee to receive additional company benefits and/or UIF (may be topped up by TERS benefit) should be considered; and
  • unpaid leave is not recommended and if contemplated, should be the last resort.

Should it not be possible to accommodate the employee through the above measures and he/she is unable to work, the employer must maintain all employer related medical aid benefits until the employee is eligible to return to work.

RETURN TO WORK (RTW) OF VULNERABLE EMPLOYEES

Where a vulnerable employee has contracted Covid-19, the following steps need to be taken by the employer before the employee may return to work (RTW):

  • ensure adequate worker’s compensation claim processing and rehabilitation if exposure was work-related;
  • ensure that any sick leave related to a workplace-acquired COVID-19 related illness is managed under COIDA procedures;
  • employees with mild illness (not requiring hospitalisation) should complete the mandatory 14 days isolation and return to work thereafter;
  • employees that have been hospitalised due to COVID-19 prolonged illness and complications should be assisted by the employer to ensure RTW integration;
  • a fitness to work medical evaluation should be performed in those cases with moderate to severe illness by an occupational medical practitioner/specialist and occupational therapist, where appropriate, to assess the presence and degree of clinical deficits (e.g. lung function impairment) and health problems related to ICU (muscle weakness, memory and concentration problems, mental illnesses) since these employees may require prolonged work adjustment; and
  • rehabilitation may be recommended by the occupational therapist and other allied health professionals as appropriate.

Please note that this is an interim guide that may be amended in future.

Please click here to view the guidelines.

We will keep members abreast of any developments in this regard.

NEASA 24/7 NATIONAL HOTLINE: 086 016 3272

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