Fast tests in the workplace: an update (06/04/21)

An FPS ELSD memorandum creates a framework for broader deployment of rapid tests in the workplace.

What exactly are fast tests?

It is important to have a clear understanding of what is meant by fast tests. The term ‘fast test’ refers to the speed with which the result of a corona test is acquired, but says nothing about the way in which the sample is gathered or the testing method. So it makes no difference whether a sample is taken via the nose, throat, saliva, etc. To put it simply: if a test does not need to be sent to the laboratory in order to get a result, it is referred to as a fast test.

In which situations may fast tests be used?

Nothing has changed in the current procedures for using fast tests. However, there are some specific situations in which the occupational physician may now decide to use fast tests for specific employees.

In concrete terms, fast tests may be used in the following circumstances:

  1. Cluster management in the workplace
    Fast tests are already being used to detect clusters, when an infection emerges in the workplace via contact tracing. This can be done to keep (potential) outbreaks under control, or in the case of employees who are only working temporarily in Belgium and of whom at least one has symptoms or has tested positive for Covid-19.

    In this context, the occupational physician may decide to test all or some of the employees regularly over a specific period (e.g. twice a week), with or without a fast test. Depending on confirmed infections, he may extend this period.

    Fast tests can be used in such situations to test low-risk contacts, or to test more widely than the cluster in a company. In principle, high-risk contacts must go into quarantine and are tested with PCR tests. An exception is made for critical positions in essential sectors: there is a specific procedure involving the use of fast tests, which aims to keep them out of quarantine.
  2. Preventive testing without any sign of an outbreak: specific risk evaluation by the occupational physician
    Fast tests may also be used repetitively further to a risk assessment. This aims to prevent the spread of the virus and protect the health of employees.

    In this case, strict terms apply to the use of fast tests:
    • The decision to use fast tests is made by the occupational physician, who considers the company profile, the nature of activities and an increase in the regional circulation of the virus. If necessary, he can also consult the regional health inspector and/or the doctor-social inspector at the General Supervisory Board for Welfare at Work (FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue).
    • The decision is made in dialogue with the employer and respects the social consultation.
    • Fast tests can only be used during a specific period. The occupational physician may extend this period if this is deemed necessary.
    • Only specific categories of employees are eligible. Based on specific criteria (number of contacts, amount of distance kept, amount of ventilation, etc.), the occupational physician determines who can be tested. The external services are currently developing a general risk evaluation in order to harmonise this assessment.
    • Teleworkers do not qualify.
  3. At the request of the doctor-social inspector
    The doctor-social inspector can ask the occupational physician to conduct repeated fast tests on employees in the workplace during a specific period.

Which employees qualify/do not qualify for this form of testing?

In the context of cluster management, low-risk contacts in the workplace can be tested using fast tests. Also, employees who are only working temporarily in Belgium and who display at least one symptom are eligible. Based on a specific risk assessment, the occupational physician can also ask other employees to take a test.

From a medical-technical perspective, there is no point using fast tests on people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19. Teleworkers do not qualify either.

Important: fast tests certainly do not replace the existing prevention measures! Neither can they be used to release an employee from his/her duty to remain in quarantine. The exception to this rule is in critical positions within essential sectors, for which a fast test procedure has been developed (see ‘cluster management in the workplace’).

What is the meaning of a negative or positive result from a fast test?

If the fast test shows a negative result, then the person tested is unlikely to be contagious at that particular moment. Even so, a negative test does not guarantee that the employee is not infected with the corona virus. A fast test will fail to detect those with a low viral load. Someone who is infected, but not (yet) contagious, can become infectious later on, once the viral load has increased. This is why it is so important to repeat fast tests, for example twice a week.

A positive test must always result in isolation and contact tracing.

Can employers force their employees to undergo fast tests?

No. Employees must agree voluntarily to undergo such tests. That’s why it is essential to explain this method of testing very clearly.

As an employer, you are naturally involved in the evaluation, however, the final decision to determine which employees are eligible for a fast test, or how often this must be done, is down to the occupational physician or doctor-social inspector.

As an employer, you will not see the test results, since this concerns the processing of health data.

What’s the practical procedure for taking fast tests?

When there are large numbers of employees to be tested, our doctors or nurses will come to your premises to carry out the tests.

If only a small number of employees are concerned, they may visit one of our medical centres for their fast test, or go to a local triage and test centre.

Are fast tests considered as part of the periodic health monitoring?

No. Fast tests are unrelated to a periodic health assessment or additional medical treatment. The result of a fast test says nothing about someone’s suitability for employment when it comes to the risks involved in carrying out the job.

What does fast testing cost?

The test material that is provided by the government is free of charge, but this does not apply to the test procedure. Also, testing is not included in the fixed free and will be charged separately. However, A, B and C+ companies may use prevention units.

As an employer, can I make use of the free fast tests from the government?

No. Occupational physicians are the only people authorised to order these kits.