Return to a new “normality” at work
Due to the SARC-CoV-2 pandemic, measures to prevent the spread of the disease have been implemented in Poland. Regardless of whether the hazard takes a chronic form or whether it is possible to quickly eliminate the pathogen from public spaces, the time to return to normal functioning of the economy and the workplace is approaching.
The new phase of the lifting of restrictions introduced in business activity and social life due to COVID 19 has been announced and started from 18 May 2020. This new stage of “defrosting the economy” concerns the resumption of operations by restaurants, bars, cafés and hairdressing and beauty salons. Changes also affect the initial classes of primary school and the final stage of secondary schools and studies. So far, the resumption of business activity has covered the hotel industry and shopping centers.
The lifting of restrictions must be linked to the application of appropriate measures to ensure safety and health at work and in the social lives. Employers must face the obligations provided by the COVID 19 regulations and employees’ expectations regarding workplaces and work modes.
When considering returning to work at work establishments, employers should conduct a risk assessment, and review working practices and the new requirements concerning workplace that will lead to safe and healthy work conditions.
General health and safety obligations
According to the Polish Labour Code, the employer has a duty to protect the health and safety of employees by ensuring safe and hygienic working conditions, making use of appropriate scientific and technological measures, paying particular attention to organising work in such way that ensuring safe and hygienic working conditions, responding to health and safety needs and adapting measures taken to improve the existing level of the protection of workers.
Employers are also obliged to inform employees about the risks associated with their work and about rules of conduct in case of accidents or other potentially threatening situations.
The employer is obliged to fulfill obligations in the field of health and safety at work both for employees employed in the workplace on the basis of an employment relationship and on the basis of civil law contracts (contract of mandate, contract for specific work), as well as for people who are self-employed.
On the other hand, the employee also has a responsibility to ensuring health and safety in the workplace. In particular, the employee is obliged to comply with health and safety regulations and employer’s guidelines in this area, as well as to use appropriate personal protective equipment and to cooperate with the employer in the performance of health and safety obligations.
Risks associated with coronavirus should be identified before returning to work from lockdown – and as such a proper risk assessment of the working environment is an important part of starting a new “normality” at work. When verifying a risk assessment, attention should be paid to unusual situations that may cause problems and all psychosocial risks in connection with the pandemic.
The pandemic causes justified anxiety, stress and frustrations in most professional groups. Anxiety and a sense of real danger may increase the stress of the whole team of employees. Such negative situation may not only negatively affect the psychophysical condition of the staff, but also may affect their reactions and behavior at work. It is therefore important to update the risk assessment with a consideration of the mental health of workers.
Risk assessments should also consider issues related to the obligation to ensure social distancing between workers, exposure to the risk of infection on the journey to and from work and the establishment of procedures in the event of illness at workplace.
It is important that workers and their representatives take part in the risk assessment process.
Once a risk assessment has been updated, the next step is to apply appropriate safety and control measures to allow normal work and at the same time to prevent the possibility of COVID-19 spreading.
Specific measures and obligations
In accordance with the COVID-19 regulations, specific requirements should be met in order to perform work in the workplace. The new rules apply for employers who have not ceased their business activities, as well as to those who return to work after the lockdown.
The following requirements must apply in the workplaces:
- the obligation to cover the nose and mouth (wearing protective masks or visors) by employees who provide direct service to customers and outside persons;
- persons employed in the company (without contact with outside persons) are not obliged to wear masks / visors, although the State Labour Inspectorate indicates that wearing masks is recommended;
- all employees should be provided with disposable gloves or hand disinfectants;
- the distance between adjacent workplaces should be at least 1.5 metres – if this is not possible due to the nature of the activity, workers should be provided with personal protective equipment.
The application of some of the above requirements may require a new arrangement of space in the workplace. Employers may separate workstations with appropriate partitions to provide greater protection. In addition, it may be possible to create new temporary workplaces in public spaces such as conference rooms or canteens, allowing sufficient distance between workers.
In addition, when returning to work in a workplace, the employer may also consider introducing number limits in places accessible to all employees, such as kitchens, canteens or recreation rooms.
A good solution may also be to use remote communication in place of traditional staff meetings. The introduction of such measures seems necessary to minimise the possible risk of spreading the infection.
It is also important that employees remember to keep a distance (about 2 metres) between themselves during the interview, both in the workplace itself and in other places such as the kitchen.
Besides the above, it is also recommended to:
- provide public disinfectants for disinfecting hands and office components, i.e. desks, keyboards, mice, handles, kitchen worktops, and waste baskets; and ensure that employees, customers and contractors have access to places where they can wash their hands with soap and water;
- promote regular and thorough hand washing by people in public places: using soap and water or by disinfecting hands with alcohol-based hand rubs (containing at least 60% alcohol);
- post information on effective hand washing in a visible place;
- combine the above with active communication, such as staff training by occupational health and safety professionals.
Strict rules on cleanliness should also apply at the workplace. In particular all touch surfaces including desks, counters and tables, door knobs, light switches, handrails and other objects (e.g. telephones, keyboards) must be regularly wiped with disinfectant or water and detergent. Moreover, all frequently used areas, such as restrooms and common areas, should be cleaned regularly and carefully.
Changes in working mode
The occurrence of COVID-19 undoubtedly is impacting the way work is performed and the rules of performing certain employee duties. In fact, where COVID-19 is present, employers must accept the need for measures to enable remote working and minimise the possible spread of the infection.
In order to provide greater protection against COVID-19, shift work or rotational work may be introduced. An additional factor for consideration is to place employees in fixed teams, without contact with other teams. This mechanism will eliminate unnecessary contact between workers and in the event of an infection, it may be sufficient to isolate a given team and not the entire staff.
The lockdown has shown that in some cases remote work is possible. Due to the constant risk associated with the COVID-19, remote work should continue wherever possible. Employers should allow employees to work from home or flexibly from the workplace (e.g. at different hours), if possible. In this case, it may be necessary to update the company codes of conduct.
Remote working should in particular be encouraged for people particularly exposed to the severe course of COVID-19 disease.
Limitation of business trips, whether domestic or foreign to a minimum and encouraging employees to conduct meetings via remote means of communication (e.g. Skype, Zoom) are further measures to prevent the SARS-CoV-2 spread.
The new normality at work will require some changes and significant commitment on the part of both employer and employees.
Attorney at Law, Partner, Head of Labor Law Practice
T: +48 660 765 903