14/09/2020

Occupational Safety in the Time of COVID-19 – What Every Employer Needs to Know

With over 20 million confirmed coronavirus infections worldwide, the debate in Finland has turned to whether a second wave of infections is on its way or whether it is already here. Whatever the case, at this point it seems unlikely that society would be locked down as fully as last spring.

The pandemic has given rise to many questions among our clients. In this post, we cover the some of the most common questions relating to occupational safety.

Can an Employee Leave off Work if They Are Afraid of the Coronavirus or Are in a High-Risk Group?

An employee’s fear of contracting the coronavirus is not, as a rule, a reason to leave off work. The Occupational Safety and Health Act gives an employee the right to leave off work if the work causes a serious risk to an employee’s own or other employees’ life or health.

However, the threshold for applying this provision is quite high. The right to leave off work can only be exercised in exceptional circumstances in which the risk is real and serious. Having an underlying condition that increases the risk of contracting the serious form of the coronavirus does not automatically entitle an employee to leave off work.

Furthermore, the right to leave off work is not available if the risk can be avoided by improving occupational safety. Indeed, occupational safety measures taken by the employer are always the primary means of resolving this kind of situation.

What Occupational Safety Tools Does the Employer Have?

Employers are required to take care of the safety and health of their employees while at work. The point of departure is that the employer must identify risks and hazards in the work environment and seek to eliminate them or, if this is not possible, minimise them. Based on a risk assessment, the employer must plan how the risks caused by the coronavirus in the workplace will be managed.

The concrete measures available vary depending on the working conditions. When planning measures, employers should also take into account personal factors relating to employees, such as being in a high-risk group. Careful consideration should also be given to how binding to make the measures: the employer must decide whether measures at the workplace are recommendations or whether to exercise its right of direction to make them binding orders.

Concrete measures can include:

  • reorganisation of work duties or spaces and how they are used
  • limiting the maximum number of employees that can be present at the workplace
  • altering the company’s remote working practices
  • procuring protective equipment and instructions for their use 

For example, the risk assessment may show that minimising hazards requires an obligation to wear a mask at the workplace. In this case, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide the employees with instructions on using masks, to procure masks for the workplace and to bear the costs relating to the masks.

What Are the Employees’ Obligations?

Employees are obligated to comply with their employer’s instructions and to otherwise promote the safety of the work environment through their own actions. In any work community, there may be individual employees who react negatively to new instructions. It is important that employers reinforce their work safety orders using the measures available under employment law.

Summary of Employer Work Safety Obligations

The question of whether an employer has fulfilled its work safety obligations is often tested in trials.

In short, the work safety measures that employers should take due to the coronavirus are:

  • taking the coronavirus into account in the identification and assessment or risks
  • decisions on measures, recommendations and binding orders 
  • drafting instructions
  • communicating instructions to employees and training employees
  • supervising compliance with instructions.

Employers also have to take the coronavirus into account as part of the company’s occupational safety processes. Now might be a good time to review your company’s occupational safety processes as a whole and make sure they are up to date.

 

Eveliina Tammela
Lisa Litvin