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.
- 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- What if an employee has symptoms or has had contact with an infected person?
This decision tree shows the steps to be followed.
4- 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
- 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.
5- 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 measures should you take in the workplace?
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.
Has an employee had a high-risk contact? Then he or she has to go into quarantine. Employees who can work from home will continue to receive their wages.
Where this is impossible, a doctor will issue a quarantine certificate. This means that your employee is fit for work, but not permitted to travel and therefore unable to come to the workplace. He/she will receive temporary unemployment benefit.
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- 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.
3- An employee returns from holiday from a red or orange zone. What are you required to do as an employer?
Tests are no longer required for employees returning from abroad and showing no symptoms.
However, the electronic Public Health Passenger Locator Form must be completed after staying abroad for more than 48 hours, whatever their means of transport. The employee will then receive a QR code by e-mail, together with a self-evaluation document.
If the self-evaluation document reveals that the employee is returning from a red zone and may be infected, he/she will receive a text message requesting that he/she goes into quarantine for at least 10 days.
No test or quarantine are required for an orange zone. Ideally, however, you should make agreements with employees returning from a risk area. This includes measures such as teleworking or working in a separate area.
As an employer, you may not require an employee to communicate his/her travel destination. You may ask but the employee chooses whether he or she answers the question. It is therefore your employee's responsibility to follow the official travel advice, not yours. Of course, you can encourage employees to behave responsibly.
4- As an employer, are you allowed to require a test when an employee returns from holidays?
As an employer, you may not simply take action.
- You may only request a medical certificate if the employee reports sick.
- If an employee comes to work with symptoms and is still able to return home independently, you should urge him or her to go home and contact the general practitioner by telephone as soon as possible. Ideally, the use of public transport should be avoided.
- If the employee appears to be seriously ill, call in the occupational physician. He or she may have the sick employee transported to hospital, if necessary.
You may not impose a test on the employee upon return. If he or she shows no symptoms, the employee may resume work. You may not prohibit this.
Ideally, however, you should make agreements with employees returning from a risk area. This includes measures such as teleworking or working in a separate area.
5- Do you have to pay employees in quarantine?
Is an employee subject to mandatory quarantine but still able to telework? You pay the wages for this period as usual.
If teleworking is not an option, the employee will request a quarantine certificate from his or her general practitioner. With that certificate, the employee is entitled to benefits (Dutch/French/German). In consultation with you, he/she can also take additional holidays.
What do you do in the event of an infection in your company?
1- Who should you notify if an employee is infected? There is a real possibility of being confronted with a corona infection in your organisation one of these days. As soon as infection occurs, the contact tracing process for the infected employee is initiated. This brochure summarises the steps to be taken.
2- Can you have all employees tested if a colleague is infected?
No. Contact tracing should reveal with whom the infected person had contact between the 2 days before symptoms appeared and the day the employee entered quarantine (= risk period).
These individuals are then divided into 'high-risk contacts' and 'low-risk contacts'.
The high-risk contacts are those persons who have had contact with the infected employee for more than 15 minutes and at less than 1.5 metres. These employees are contacted by the contact tracing officers. They are asked to go into quarantine for 14 days and be tested if symptoms arise.
Low-risk contacts do not have to stay at home or be tested.
3- Can you require employees to take a test?
As an employer, you are not allowed to process medical data of your staff. You can offer a corona test, but employees are not obliged to make use of it. If they do allow themselves to be tested through your organisation, you as an employer may not access the result of the tests. Random testing is also not useful.
You are also not allowed to require employees to have themselves tested by their general practitioner.
4- How can you organise contact tracing within your organisation?
Contact tracing is essential to monitoring the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace, but ensuring privacy has proven challenging.
One option is Savitas, a privacy friendly contact tracking system based on QR codes. These codes are applied to places where gathering is (almost) inevitable. Employees who arrive at the location voluntarily scan the code with their smartphone. Registration or the installation of the app is not required. All scans are completely anonymous, thus guaranteeing the privacy of all employees.
In the event of an infection, the following steps are taken:
- The infected colleague received a Savitas code from HR or the occupational physician.
- With this code, the sick employee informs Savitas of the infection.
- Anyone who scanned the same QR code around the same time as the infected person is considered potentially infected.
- Upon the next scan, the potentially infected persons are advised to isolate themselves and contact their physician. This notification is confidential.
5- How do you map high-risk contacts?
With a ‘contacts risk analysis’, you identify the high-risk contacts within your company. After all, there are roles or circumstances that make it difficult or impossible to comply with the prevention measures. This risk analysis provides companies with a clear indication of who is at increased risk. If a colleague shows symptoms or an employee receives a phone call from the contact tracing team, you can then react quickly.
6- What should you do in the event of increased infection rates or cluster contamination within your organisation?
Are there multiple infections among your employees? Consult your (internal) prevention advisor to take the necessary measures. Some examples are compulsory teleworking, placing high-risk contacts in quarantine and possibly organising tests.
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."