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Occupational health, safety in the time of COVID-19

On July 24, 2017, Congress enacted Republic Act No. 11058, otherwise known as “An Act Strengthening Compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Standards and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof.” This Act shall apply to all establishments, projects, and sites, and all other places where work is being undertaken in all branches of economic activity, but does not include those in the public sector.

Under this Act, every employer, contractor, subcontractor, and other person who manages, controls, or supervises the work being undertaken shall, among others: (a) furnish the workers a place of employment free from hazardous conditions that are causing or likely to cause death, illness, or physical harm to them; (b) inform the workers of work-related hazards and health risks and implement preventive measures and steps to be taken in case of an emergency; and (c) comply with occupational safety and health (OSH) standards.

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Meanwhile, every employee shall participate in ensuring compliance with OSH standards in the workplace. Any person, including the builder or contractor who visits, renovates, or installs devices or conducts business in any establishment or workplace, must comply with the provisions of this Act and related issuances from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

These being said, what OSH standards should employers, employees, and other stakeholders comply with as they slowly ease their way into the “new normal” of working in the time of the new coronavirus (COVID-19)?

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Surely, OSH standards stated in the Act will continue to ensure a safe and healthful workplace. For instance, covered workplaces are required to install safety signages and devices to warn the workers and the public of the hazards therein. These signages and devices should be posted in prominent and strategic locations in a language understandable to all, and in accordance with the standards set by the DOLE.

These workplaces should have qualified occupational health personnel, such as physicians, nurses, certified first-aiders, and dentists, duly complemented with the required medical supplies, equipment, and facilities. In this regard, an employer may not establish a clinic in its workplace where: (a) there is a hospital or dental clinic located not more than 25 kilometers therefrom, accessible in not more than 25 minutes travel time; and (b) the employer has facilities readily available for transporting workers to this hospital or dental clinic in case of emergency.

An employer shall likewise ensure free welfare facilities in order to ensure human working conditions, such as, among others, adequate supply of safe drinking water and sanitary and washing facilities.

The employer, project owner, general contractor, or subcontractor who fails to comply with the requirements of the Act shall be jointly and solidarily liable with the person managing, controlling, or supervising the work being undertaken.

Meanwhile, the DOLE and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) jointly issued their interim guidelines to prevent and control COVID-19 outbreak in workplaces in the private sector. Under these guidelines, employers shall identify an area where a personnel, who will register a temperature of more than 37.5°C, may be isolated before entering the workplace and may not be accessed by other employees. The isolation area should be well-ventilated and frequently disinfected. If possible, alcohol and sanitizer dispensers and disinfectant foot baths should be installed at the entrance of buildings and workplaces.

Inside the workplace, all work areas, frequently handled objects, including doorknobs and handles, and canteens and kitchens should be frequently cleaned and disinfected. Sanitizers should be accessible in corridors, conference areas, elevators, stairways, and other common areas, while all washrooms and toilets should have sufficient clean water and soap. Meanwhile, workstation layout should be designed to allow for unidirectional movement in aisles, corridors and workways.

Workplaces shall be decontaminated such that: (a) appropriate disinfectant (e.g. chlorine bleaching solution and 1:100 phenol-based disinfectant) will be used; (b) work may only resume at least 24 hours from decontamination; and (c) workers in the workplace with the suspected COVID-19 patient shall comply with the quarantine procedure.

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TAGS: occupational health, pandemic
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