COVID-19 is by far one of the catastrophic events that has affected the world, its lives and the businesses in such large scale. While India has been bravely fighting the pandemic with heavy lockdown restrictions, we are slowly moving into “Lockdown 4.0”, with restrictions being eased out so as to normalise life ensuring safety precautions. The Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA”) by way of its order dated May 17, 2020 (“MHA Order”) issued pursuant to the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (“DM Act”) extended the lockdown for a further period of two weeks with effect from May 17, 2020. While the MHA Order has conditionally permitted functioning of certain industries, the said industries may function only in strict compliance with the standard operating procedures and the National Directives for COVID-19 management (“Directives”). The MHA Order categorically states that the previous orders of the MHA issued on March 24, 2020, March 29 2020, April 14, 2020, 15 April, 2020 and 01 May, 2020 shall cease to have effect on May 18, 2020. Thus, by implication this MHA Order and its guidelines shall be the ones to followed by individuals, employers, business establishments etc. and the shall same remain in effect till May 31,2020, until any further guidelines/ orders are issued by the MHA.
Apart from the generally applicable legislations with respect to health and safety of employees, the MHA has issued the Directives, pursuant to which the employers will have to strictly ensure the following:
1.Workplaces should ensure that every person on the work-premise will have to wear face cover.
2. As far as possible, work from home should be followed.
3. Employers shall make a provision for thermal scanning to be performed on everyone entering and exiting the work place.
4. All entry and exit mechanisms should have handwash and sanitisers which are preferably touch free in nature.
5. Employers shall ensure adequate gaps between work-shifts. Lunch breaks are required to be staggered to ensure social distancing.
6. Seating arrangements should be such that people are adequately distanced from each other in accordance with the norms of social distancing.
7. Spitting should be strictly prohibited.
8. Entire workplace, common facilities and all points which come into human contact (like door handles, printer area etc) should be frequently sanitised.
9. With the view of ensuring safety in offices and workplaces, employers on best effort basis should ensure that Arogya Setu is installed by all employees having compatible mobile phones.
Subsequently, the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (“MoHFW”) – Directorate General of Health Services (Government of India) on May 18, 2020 had issued a set of guidelines (“MoHFW Guidelines”) to be followed in workplaces in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and they are as follows:
1.Basic Measures (To be followed by all employees and visitors)
1.1. Physical distancing of at least one meter to be followed at all times.
1.2 Use of face covers/masks to be mandatory.
1.3. Practice frequent hand washing (for at least 40-60 seconds) even when hands are not visibly dirty and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (for at least 20 seconds) is encouraged.
1.4. Respiratory etiquettes to be strictly followed. This involves strict practice of covering one’s mouth and nose while coughing/sneezing with a tissue/handkerchief/flexed elbow and disposing off used tissues properly
1.5. Self-monitoring of health by all and reporting any illness at the earliest.
2. Preventive Measures for Offices:
2.1. Any staff reportedly suffering from flu-like illness should not attend office and seek medical advice from local health authorities [e.g. CGHS wellness center, medical attendance under CS (MA) etc.]. Such persons, if diagnosed as a suspect/confirmed case of COVID-19 should immediately inform the office authorities.
2.2. Any staff requesting home quarantine based on the containment zone activities in their residential areas should be permitted to work from home.
2.3. Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India guidelines with respect to organizing meetings, coordinating visitors shall be scrupulously followed.
3. Measures to be taken on occurrence of case(s):
3.1. When one or few person(s) who share a room/close office space is/are found to be suffering from symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, the following measures shall be taken:
3.1.1. Place the ill person in a room or area where they are isolated from others at the workplace. Provide a mask/face cover till such time he/she is examined by a doctor.
3.1.2. Report the incident to the concerned central/state health authorities. The Helpline No: 1075 shall also be immediately informed.
3.1.3. A risk assessment will be undertaken by the designated public health authority (district RRT/treating physician) and accordingly further advice shall be made regarding management of case, his/her contacts and need for disinfection.
3.1.4. The suspect case if reporting very mild / mild symptoms on assessment by the health authorities would be placed under home isolation.
3.1.5. The suspect case, if assessed by health authorities as moderate to severe, then the health authorities will follow guidelines at: https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/FinalGuidanceonMangaementofCovidcasesversion2.pdf
3.1.6. The rapid response team of the concerned district shall be requisitioned and will undertake the listing of contacts.
3.1.7. The necessary actions for contact tracing and disinfection of work place will start once the report of the patient is received as positive. The report will be expedited for this purpose.
3.2. If there are large numbers of contacts from a pre symptomatic/asymptomatic case, there could be a possibility of a cluster emerging in workplace setting. Due to the close environment in workplace settings this could even be a large cluster (>15 cases), hence the essential principles of risk assessment, isolation, and quarantine of contacts, case referral and management shall be followed. However, the scale of arrangements will be higher.
3.3. Management of Contacts:
3.3.1. The contacts will be categorised into high and low risk contacts by the District RRT.
3.3.2. The high-risk exposure contacts shall be quarantined for 14 days. They will follow the guidelines on home quarantine and shall undergo testing as per ICMR protocol.
3.3.3. The low risk exposure contacts shall continue to work and closely monitor their health for next 14 days.
4. Closure of Workplace:
4.1. If there are one or two cases reported, the disinfection procedure will be limited to places/areas visited by the patient in past 48 hrs. There is no need to close the entire office building/halt work in other areas of the office and work can be resumed after disinfection as per laid down protocol. However, if there is a larger outbreak, the entire building will have to be closed for 48 hours after thorough disinfection. All the staff will work from home, till the building is adequately disinfected and is declared fit for re-occupation.
5. Disinfection Procedures in Offices
5.1. Detailed guidelines on the disinfection procedures in offices as issued by the MoHFW shall be followed:https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/Guidelinesondisinfectionofcommonpublicplacesincludingoffices.pdf
In addition to the aforementioned MHA Order, the Tamil Nadu state government vide G.O.Ms. No: 245 dated May 18, 2020 (“TN G.O.M”) had issued certain guidelines which are to be adhered by employers, business establishments and the general public. The guidelines in the TN G.O.M are more or less similar to the Directives issued under the MHA Order, however certain key points are as follows:
1.In rural areas (village panchayats), all industries are allowed to operate with 100% of the employees except for the areas under the jurisdiction of the Greater Chennai Police.
2. The Private and Business organisations which are temporarily closed due to lockdown are allowed to use minimum staff for essential maintenance.
3. The permission to operate industries are relaxed further and permitted to operate with 100% of the employees in the industries working with less than 100 persons and 50% of the employees or a minimum of 100 persons in the industries working with more than 100 persons in all corporations, municipalities, and town panchayats in all areas across the state, except for the areas under the Greater Chennai Police.