Q&A - What precautions can you take against the new coronavirus?

The whole world is under the spell of the new coronavirus. But what is corona exactly, what are the symptoms and what precautions can you take?

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 new 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:

  • fever
  • muscle pain
  • fatigue
  • runny nose
  • throat pain
  • headache
  • 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:

Our return-to-work guides contain specific measures for your sector to help your employees return to work safely.

Face masks are part of the lockdown exit strategy. It is important that we wear them where necessary, but 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

  1. Stay home, especially if you are sick.
  2. Work from home whenever possible if the job allows for this.
  3. Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  4. Maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres, indoors and outside.
  5. Wear a face mask on public transport and in crowded public places.
  6. Limit your physical social contacts.

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 Data Protection Authority (DPA) has recently replied that the mere recording of body temperature is not regarded as the processing of personal data. As an employer, you may therefore take a temperature reading, but you must not record or process the results as personal data. The processing of the measurement result as personal data in a file as part of a scan for high temperature is therefore prohibited. Article 4.4 of the GDPR applies if digital processing takes place, which occurs if a heat camera automatically (and digitally) measures the skin temperature of a passer-by. The DPA acknowledges that the privacy risk in this exceptional situation must be weighed against current social circumstances.

In addition, the FPS (Federal Public Service ) ELSD (Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue) has also provided advice. The basic principle is that an employee infected with coronavirus constitutes a situation that can influence the health of other employees, as a result of which, the employer can take certain measures within legal limits. One of these measures is to check the temperature, since having a high temperature is one of the symptoms of coronavirus infection. They have compared the different legislations and come to the conclusion that it is not entirely clear whether measuring an employee’s temperature should be regarded as a medical act. This is important in order to understand whether these tests may be carried out by the employer, or whether they are only to be carried out by doctors (Mahoux Act).

The FPS ELSD also wonders what the reliability of such a temperature measurement is. After all, body temperature can be influenced by physical exertion or suppressed by certain medications.

Their conclusion is as follows: measuring the temperature of employees does not seem to be the most suitable and feasible prevention measure that can be applied within the company to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

They reiterate that the most important preventive measures are the following: provide clean and hygienic workplaces by regularly disinfecting; have employees apply good hand and respiratory hygiene at the workplace; inform employees that it is better to stay at home if they are exhibiting symptoms of the disease; provide telework where possible; and provide instructions in case someone falls ill and may be infected with coronavirus.

Any decision to introduce tracing tests in the company must be included in the employment regulations through the usual procedure, with all the modalities that will be followed in this context. The work regulations are developed on the basis of a consultation between the employer and employees.

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. In the case of the coronavirus they will play an important role in terms of prevention and advice. They will support employers in taking the appropriate measures in the workplace to help prevent infection. They will also give guidance in other work-related matters that emerge due to 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 or on a cruise ship 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?
However, to be prepared for an epidemic – or another threat – 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.

The FPS Home Affairs has created an extensive guide and checklist.

3Must 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.

You will find our tips for the construction industry on this page.

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?

In this article, we provide you with a series of useful tips and you will find the checklist used by the government for inspections.

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.)

What’s the situation in Belgium?

1- Are postal packages from affected regions dangerous?
Those who work in a mail-order company or order a parcel from China online have nothing to fear. The coronavirus can only survive in the body of a human or animal.

Research has shown that coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS can survive 4 to 5 days on surfaces. The more porous the surface, the less able they are to survive. That means they can barely survive on cardboard. Because packages pass through different environments before they are delivered, the virus has less chance of surviving.

The aviation industry, which applies very strict rules to air cargo, states that there is no evidence that the coronavirus can be transferred to cargo. This means that contamination cannot spread through cargo.

Mensura will help you develop a targeted approach

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