Q&A - What precautions can you take against the coronavirus?
The whole world is once again transfixed by the coronavirus. How do you prevent your employees from becoming infected
What are coronaviruses?
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that can cause various respiratory diseases. Until recently only six coronaviruses - including the SARS and MERS viruses - were known to infect humans as well as animals. The new virus would be the seventh.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic: they live in animals, but can be transmitted to humans. In SARS, bats were most likely the spreaders of the virus, in the case of the MERS virus it was camels. It is still unclear which animal is spreading the new coronavirus covid-19. The virus first appeared in China, presumably at a food market in Wuhan (a city of 11 million inhabitants in the Chinese province of Hubei).
How do you prevent your employees from becoming infected?
1- What are the symptoms?
High fever and coughing are the most common symptoms of COVID-19, according to research by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Fatigue, coughing up mucus, and a shortness of breath complete the top five.
Patients in weak health can catch pneumonia. Up to now, only older people and people with chronic health issues (such as respiratory diseases, heart disease, and diabetes) have died from the coronavirus.
The symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to those of a common flu and to a lesser extent of a cold.
See your doctor if you:
1/ have one of the following symptoms that are acute, with no other obvious cause:
- dry cough
- respiratory problems
- chest pain
- acute loss of sense of taste or smell
2/ have at least two of the following symptoms with no other apparent cause:
- muscle pain
- runny nose
- throat pain
- reduced appetite
Please note that this list of symptoms is not exhaustive.
How do you distinguish hay fever from a corona infection?
Spring also means the start of the pollen season. Approximately 1 in 4 Belgians suffer to a greater or lesser extent from hay fever. Symptoms: a blocked or running nose, sneezing and itching of nose and/or eyes. Very similar to the symptoms of COVID-19.
But with a corona infection a (high) fever, often also loss of smell and taste and a general feeling of illness also occur. If you also have these symptoms, be sure to contact your GP.
2- What precautions can you take to prevent infection?
Follow the general measures applicable in the workplace:
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use hand sanitiser gel.
- Sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow or – even better – use a paper tissue and throw it away immediately.
- Maintain a distance of 1.5 metres at all times.
- Face masks are required in busy areas where maintaining a 1.5-meter distance isn't possible.
Our return-to-work guides contain specific measures for your sector to help your employees return to work safely.
It is crucial that we continue to respect the hierarchy of the prevention measures. Specifically: when the first measure in the hierarchy cannot be respected, only then does the measure in the level below come into force.
Preventive measures according to hierarchy
- Stay home, especially if you are sick.
- Limit your physical social contacts.
- Work from home whenever possible if the job allows for this. Teleworking is even mandatory in the province of Antwerp now, except in cases where it is absolutely impossible.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water.
- Maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres, indoors and outside.
- Wear a face mask on public transport and in crowded public places or follow the applicable local and regional guidelines.
Wearing a mouth mask is not a guarantee that you will not become infected, but it does prevent you from spreading your own germs. Health professionals who come into close contact with Covid-19 patients do use a special mouth mask, preferably of the category FFP2 or FFP3.
3- As an employer, are you allowed to measure the temperature of your employees?
The Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (FPS ELSD) has provided a recommendation in this regard. Measuring employee temperature does not seem to be the most suitable or feasible preventive measure for limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
The key preventive measures are:
- providing clean and hygienic workplaces by regularly disinfecting
- having employees apply good hand and respiratory hygiene practice at the workplace
- instructing employees not to come to the office if they show signs of the disease
- facilitating teleworking where possible (in the province of Antwerp this is even mandatory now)
- providing instructions in the event that someone falls ill and may be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Any decision to introduce recording of body temperature must be included in the employment regulations through the usual procedure, with all the associated terms and conditions.
4- Are you allowed to send employees who are ill to the occupational physician?
No. It is not the role of the occupational physician to examine an employee for possible infection. The Ministry of Public Health has specifically allocated this task to doctors and – secondly – hospitals. The correct procedure is for employees to contact their doctor. If they are showing possible symptoms of infection with COVID-19 (fever, coughing, etc.), then they must consult a doctor by telephone. Sitting in a waiting room can spread the infection.
Occupational physicians monitor risks related to work and help to prevent them. They support employers in taking the appropriate measures in the workplace to help prevent infection. They also provide guidance on other work-related matters that arise as a result of the virus.
What can you (not) do to keep your organisation up and running?
1- What does employment law say about an employee who is unable or forbidden to come to work due to the risk?
An employee who is infected is considered incapable of work and the usual sickness rules apply. The employee can count on sickness insurance and is entitled to a guaranteed wage.
Various groups of travellers may be in quarantine in a hotel because a fellow passenger is infected with the coronavirus. Is one of your employees stuck on holiday or on a business trip? Then, regardless of whether the employee is a white or blue-collar worker, this is considered (by law) as absence due to force majeure. In principle, the employee is not entitled to a salary, but you can arrange temporary unemployment benefit.
2- How can you, as an employer, prevent the potential impact on your business by the continued spread of the virus?
You can set up a business continuity plan. Such a plan involves listing possible action and communication to maintain your service provision and to protect the health of your employees.
3- Must you take additional measures in the construction industry?
Of course, the general precautionary measures also apply on a construction site. In addition, as an employer, you can take some extra measures and disseminate guidelines in order to limit the risks as much as possible.
4- What coronary measures should you take in the workplace?
Not everyone can telework in times of corona. But in that case, how do you guarantee your employees a safe working environment?
Consult our sector-specific return-to-work guides. These contain a complete overview of the recommended measures for your company.
5 - How do you process (medical) waste (e.g. in residential care centres, medical practices, triage centres)?
A number of wastes from the treatment of (suspected) covid-19 patients fall under non-hazardous waste:
- uncontaminated personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, aprons and hats;
- food leftovers;
- disposable curtains;
- paper and cardboard (including patients' newspapers and magazines);
- packaging materials;
- incontinence material;
- empty urine bags.
This type of waste can be collected together with the mixed industrial waste. Small quantities can be included in the municipal waste collection.
If you have the waste collected in a container, first put it in a bag. You must close it completely: no openings in the bag or waste that is sticking out.
Other waste must first be separated for 72 hours in separate bins or other waste receptacles. Only then may you collect, dispose of and process it as non-hazardous waste. Specifically, disposable linen and care materials such as bandages, tissues and pads which could be contaminated with (small amounts of) blood and/or other body fluids.
Would it be difficult for you to organise such a quarantine for 72 hours? Then dispose of the material as hazardous medical waste via yellow barrels or other approved receptacles.
(These guidelines have been drawn up by the Flemish public service OVAM, but the same principles are also in force in Wallonia.)
How to keep up to date with the latest developments?
Various bodies are closely monitoring the situation and sharing the most recent information:
- Download the poster "What precautions can you take against the coronavirus?"
- Download de poster "Coughing & sneezing: these steps will help prevent the spread of colds, flu and other respiratory infections."