On 5 March 2020 the Department of Health confirmed the first case of the Coronavirus in South Africa. The patient is a 38-year-old man from Gauteng who visited Italy with his wife. The South African couple, who have two children, were part of a group of 10 who returned from Italy on 1 March, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said. The first case in the Western Cape was confirmed on 11 March, the patient being a 36-year-old male who had travelled to multiple countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Turkey.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 places an express obligation on the employer to maintain a working environment that is safe and healthy. On the issue of a healthy working environment, the employer must ensure that the workplace is free from any risk to the health of its employees as far as it is reasonably practicable. Within the context of Covid-19, there is a clear obligation on the employer to manage the risk of contamination in the workplace. How can they do that?
- Follow health advice and information: the employer should follow health advice from the WHO (as an international source) and the Department of Health and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (as local sources).
- Communicate with employees: the employer should consistently provide updates on Covid-19 to employees and its approach at work regarding attendance and preventing the spread of infection. The employer may also wish to display posters that provide information on the illness and hygiene.
- Prevent the spread of infection: the employer should consider that there are adequate facilities for employees to wash and/or sanitise their hands regularly within the workplace. If it becomes necessary, the employer may introduce a designated area in the workplace where employees may self-isolate if they experience symptoms whilst at work. The WHO has advised that, in countries where the illness has started spreading, employees with a mild cough or low-grade fever (37.3 or more) should be encouraged to stay at home and seek medical attention immediately.
- Identify vulnerable workers: Covid-19 poses a greater risk to employees with weakened immune systems and long-term health conditions. Vulnerable workers include pregnant employees and disabled employees. Employers should pay special attention to such employees.
- Update emergency contact information: employees should be required to review and update their emergency contact information.
Other practical precautions:
- Avoid contact with people who have respiratory infections
- Maintain social distancing – stay at least one metre away from somebody who is coughing or sneezing
- Practise frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as your hands touch many surfaces and could potentially transfer the virus
- Practise respiratory hygiene – cover your mouth with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Remember to dispose the tissue immediately after use.