WORKPLACE SAFETY AND HEALTH STANDARDS DURING COVID-19
By: Atty Gerardo Maximo Francisco on May 7,2020
At some point, the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) still in effect in many areas in the Philippines will be downgraded by the government to the level of a general community quarantine (GCQ). Hopefully, this vital decision to shift to a GCQ will be made circumspectly and with the full backing of medical science and experts.
A declared GCQ will allow various industries to operate, including “financial services, BPOs (business process outsourcing), legal and accounting, and auditing services, professional, scientific, technical, and other non-leisure services, barber shops, salon, and other personal care services as defined by the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), and other non-leisure wholesale and retail establishments, at a maximum of 50 percent work-on-site arrangement, and without prejudice to work-from-home and other alternative work arrangements,” said Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases’ Omnibus Guidelines on the Implementation of Community Quarantine in the Philippines dated April 29, 2020.
Last May 1 (Labor Day), the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) issued a news release announcing the promulgation of DTI and DoLE’s Interim Guidelines on Workplace Prevention and Control of Covid-19 on April 30, 2020, in which “workers and employers in the private sector will be mandated to observe strict health protocols as the enhanced community quarantine and general community quarantine remain in effect” and “workers and employers will be required to follow total precautionary measures as the country grapples with the containment of the deadly Covid-19.”
The guidelines require the implementation in all workplaces of safety and health standards, including:
1. Increase physical and mental resilience by: emphasizing to all workers the everyday actions to stay healthy; enjoining companies to provide free medicines and vitamins; and providing referral for workers needing counselling or with mental health concerns.
2. Reducing transmission of Covid-19 as follows:
a. Prior to entrance in buildings or workplaces: all employers and workers shall wear face masks (to be provided by the employers), accomplish daily a health symptoms questionnaire and submit to the guard or designated safety officer prior to entry, and have their temperature checked and recorded in the health symptoms questionnaire (any person with temperature higher than 37.5 degrees Celsius or whose response in the questionnaire needs further evaluation shall be isolated in a designated area and not allowed to enter the premises; clinic staff assigned to assess workers in isolation area shall be provided the appropriate medical grade personal protective equipment (PPE) and spray alcohol/sanitizers to both hands; provide disinfectant foot baths at the entrance if possible; equipment or vehicle entering the hub operational area must go through a disinfection process; and if there will be a long queue outside the office or store premises, roving officers should instill physical distancing of one meter.
b. Inside the workplace: all work areas and frequently handled objects such as door knobs and handles shall be cleaned and disinfected regularly, at least once every two hours; all washrooms and toilets shall have sufficient clean water and soap, workers are encouraged to wash their hands frequently and avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; sanitizers shall be made available in areas where workers pass; workers shall always observe physical distancing between workers (at least one-meter radius space); eating in communal work spaces is discouraged (it is discouraged that workers engage in conversation with masks off during meal times); and canteens and kitchens should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.
3. Minimize contact rate: through alternative work arrangements, such as working-hour shifts, work from home and rotation; prolonged face-to-face interaction between workers and with clients are discouraged and masks shall be worn at all times and not removed; office tables should be arranged in order to maintain proper physical distancing; workstation layout should be designed to allow for unidirectional movement in aisles, corridors or walkways; number of people in an enclosed space shall be limited; use of stairs should be encouraged; online system (including the use of videoconferencing) shall be highly encouraged; and roving officers shall always ensure physical distancing and observance of minimum health protocols.
4. On reducing the risk of infection from Covid-19: in the event a worker is suspected as having Covid-19, the worker shall immediately proceed to the isolation area and never remove his/her mask; clinic personnel attending to the worker should wear appropriate PPE and, if needed, transport affected worker to the nearest hospital; decontamination of workplace; if the worker is sick or has fever but is not suspected to have Covid-19, the employer must advise the worker to take prudent measures to limit the spread of communicable diseases.
Employers who fail or refuse to observe the safety and health standards established in the guidelines may be held liable under Republic Act11058 (approved August 17, 2018) or “An Act Strengthening Compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Standards and Providing Penalties for Violations thereof.” This law imposes, among others, a fine not exceeding P100,000.00 per day until the violation is corrected in case of willful failure or refusal of an employer to comply with occupational safety and health standards, or with a compliance order that may be issued by the Labor Secretary.
Gerardo Maximo V. Francisco is a partner of Mata-Perez, Tamayo & Francisco (MTF Counsel). He is a corporate, deal, litigation and employment lawyer.