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Freshfields Risk & Compliance

| 4 minutes read

COVID-19: towards a safe return to the workplace – the converging positions of international institutions

The pandemic has resulted in much of the global workforce working from home (WFH). But with many countries beginning to lift their lockdown measures, employers are now having to plan for a safe return to the workplace.

Below is an overview of the most recent guidance from several international institutions: the International Labour Organisation (ILO), European Safety and Health Association (EU-OSHA), World Health Organisation (WHO), EU Commission and European Data Protection Board (EDPB).

Keeping WFH as an option

The international institutions agree that WFH should continue where possible as it protects higher-risk workers and reduces the risk of infection for those returning to the workplace.

The EU-OSHA, in particular, encourages WFH for workers with underlying health conditions, such those who have chronic conditions, are undergoing immunosuppression or are pregnant.

Health and safety measures and provision of personal protective equipment

As stated by the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, 'protecting and promoting occupational safety and health is of the utmost importance for workers, companies, social protection systems and the whole society’. All international institutions put a strong emphasis on the following actions to reduce the risk of infection while at work.

1. Social distancing 

International institutions suggest that workers should ideally work alone or be separated by at least two metres. If this is not possible, workers should be separated by barriers. Failing that, workers should be in close proximity to each other for no more than 15 minutes.

Other social distancing measures include reducing the movement of staff between floors and/or buildings, staggering the timing of meal breaks to reduce the number of people in canteens and using signage to ensure there is only one worker at a time in bathrooms and changing rooms.

Many employers have already adopted social distancing measures, such as organising split teams or shifts, and using markings to ensure that workers keep a minimum distance between each other.

Further, to promote social distancing with customers, the EU-OSHA suggests taking online or phone orders, and using contactless delivery and physical distancing both inside and outside the workplace.

 2. Providing personal protective equipment 

Providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, soap, hand sanitizer and gloves, helps them maintain personal hygiene and reduces the risk of contamination when using common areas of the workplace.

3. Cleaning the workplace

The EU-OSHA suggests that the workplace should be cleaned frequently, especially counters, door handles, tools and other surfaces that people often touch. However, this requires more work, so the EU-OSHA suggests assigning additional cleaning staff and asking workers to leave their workspace tidy. Organising shifts for cleaning staff can reduce their exposure risk.

Better ventilation at the workplace should also be considered.

4. Training 

According to the ILO, training can help reduce exposure risk. Sessions could cover topics such as:

  • what to do if there is a COVID-19 infection (see this free course offered by WHO);
  • how to use PPE correctly; and
  • workers’ right to remove themselves from a work situation that poses an imminent and serious danger to life or health.

On 28 April, which was world health and safety day, the ILO published guidance on workplace safety and health during the pandemic (PDF). However, in a recent global survey published by the International Trade Union Confederation (PDF), out of the 19 countries planning a partial or full exit from lockdown, only five rate the protections in place for workers as good, eight as fair and the rest as poor. Therefore, employers might want to implement, where allowed, stricter health and safety measures than those suggested by local laws.

Mental health: time to revise your company culture

The ILO says that people from certain ethnic backgrounds and nationalities, as well as those who have been in contact with the virus, have been stigmatised or discriminated against because of the pandemic.

To help counter these attitudes and help workers affected, employers should:

  • establish communication channels to share information and allow workers to share concerns;
  • establish a buddy system to provide psychological support, and monitor stress and burn out; and
  • use role-modelling, where managers show their staff how to mitigate stress.

According to the ILO, crises affect women and men differently. Hence, employers might want to keep in mind this UN Women checklist when adjusting their approaches.

'Immunity passports'

Very much in the headlines, immunity passports allow those who have recovered from COVID-19 to be free from any restrictions on their movement. Having such a passport allows the individual to return to work without the risk of them passing on the virus to a colleague. However, the WHO has warned that it may be possible to be infected by COVID-19 twice. Countries such as Italy, Spain and the UK share the WHO’s scepticism.

As a result, immunity certificates are not the solution and might increase the spread of the virus. Other issues that might arise include discrimination (only those who can afford to take a test can obtain such a certificate and return to work) and data protection (as the certificate is based on medical data).

Dealing with data protection and tracing apps

During the pandemic, personal data have been used to screen employees, visitors and contractors, although the extent of screening has depended on local laws. In addition to screening (temperature checks and questionnaires), EU institutions have encouraged member states to adopt contact tracing using mobile apps, which warn app users if they have been in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

However, both EU institutions and the EDPB stress that such apps should comply with certain data protection requirements .

On 21 April 2020, the EDPB issued guidelines (PDF) on the use of location data and contact tracing tools in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. The EDPB requires the controller of the contact tracing app to be clearly defined. It suggests that national health authorities would be suitable but other controllers are allowed.

In addition to accountability, using location data to trace people requires certain guarantees, including voluntary adoption by users, prioritise anonymised data over personal data and carrying out a data protection risk assessment.

For more on the use of contact tracing apps in various jurisdictions, see our blog.


global, employment, covid-19