AS THE THREAT FROM CORONAVIRUS INCREASES, WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO TO MITIGATE RISK IN THE WORKPLACE?
Current position on infection rates and transmission
The new virus, known provisionally as 2019-nCoV, was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 31 December and the outbreak has infected upward of 10,000 people to date, with at least 213 deaths in China. According to the WHO, an estimated 20% of cases in China are severely ill, but that calculation is based on known cases, and would not reflect mild, undetected ones. The overall number of infections is likely to be far higher and the WHO has today declared a global emergency.
The number of infections has more than tripled in the past week and there have been cases reported in 23 countries outside of China to date. The UK has today confirmed its first two cases, which is not unexpected given that a large number of individuals are known to have entered the country from Wuhan and Hubei prior to the quarantine being enforced.
There is little in the way of guidance from the Government as to when and how to contain workplace transmission and infection risk, and the information on the level of potential contagion is changing day by day. It has now been confirmed that there is an up to two-week incubation period where individuals remain asymptomatic but can still transmit the disease, which means that, for workplaces who have employees returning from either holidays or business trips to China, or who may have had face to face contact with individuals who could have been exposed, additional precautions are advisable.
From an employee safety perspective, employers should be aware that where an individual has returned from China and is permitted to attend the office, or has had contact with individuals who have returned to the UK from high risk areas, other employees may seek to absent themselves from the workplace if by attending they would be put to an imminent risk to their health. The relevant legislation is s44(1)(d) of the ERA, where an employee has a right not to be subjected to any detriment if that employee believes there is a serious and imminent danger to their health and/or safety.
Steps employers can take to minimise risks to staff:
1. Any employees who are returning to the UK from China can be asked to work from home for a period of two weeks.
2. Asking any employee who has had face to face contact with an individual or client recently returned from a high risk/quarantined area, such as Hubei province, to work from home for a period of two weeks from the date that they met with that individual.
3. Cease face to face meetings and events with clients who have links to high risk and/or quarantined areas, with business conducted by phone and email.
4. Provide hand gel at the entrance to the offices and request that all staff use this on entering the room. Face masks can also be provided for any staff who wish to use them.
5. Improve hygiene by providing disinfectant wipes for staff to use to clean work surfaces and equipment.
6. Ask staff to report any suspected infections, or contact with those who are or may have been infected (especially due to recent travel), to one designated member of staff, who can be the point of contact for Coronavirus concerns and co-ordinating the Employer’s response.
7. Suggest that staff try to avoid face to face contact socially with anyone they know who has recently returned from or has links to quarantined or high- risk areas until the situation on confirmed cases and transmission rates becomes clearer.
8. Encourage employees to review company sick leave and paid time off policies (not just those who are required to travel), and remind employees to stay home if they are feeling ill, and of other basic steps they can take to guard against illness (i.e., avoiding contact with those they know to be ill; washing their hands, etc.).
Employers will want to inform employees that management is apprised of, and carefully monitoring the outbreak, particularly as it relates to company travel to and from an infected region, and in terms of contact with customers and suppliers. When providing education and information on the virus itself we suggest that it should be brief, and reiterate only what official sources have issued: “less is more” in many ways. However, employers can provide employees with links to appropriate government agencies, health organisations, and other resources if they wish to to learn more about the virus.