With the latest health concern caused by the rapid spread of the Coronavirus, once again we are reminded of the terrible consequences that infectious disease outbreaks can have on global populations in a short period of time. As with any health threats, effective prevention and control is of the essence. When it comes to workplaces and workforce, implications of such an incident on health and safety and business operations are significant.
It is worth reflecting that one of the basic legal obligations of employers in most jurisdictions, including Thailand, is to provide and keep the workplace and the employees in safe and hygienic working conditions and environment to prevent harm to the employees' life, mentality or health. It is particularly important, therefore, in the event of an outbreak that employers assess the situation constantly to ensure they are still meeting those obligations. There are a range of issues that employers should consider under such circumstances in terms of health and safety obligations, but at the same time be mindful of any legal issues that could arise. Some of the issues worth considering are, for example:
- Have you have taken all appropriate steps to ensure protections and equipment are in place for employees to do their work in a safe and hygienic environment?
- In case of emergency, is there a response plan in place, for example, an emergency medical aid kit that can be used, or trained personnel who can react effectively in such situation?
- What working arrangements should you consider during an outbreak? Would it be appropriate to allow employees to work from home, for example, if the situation requires? What would be the wage and benefits entitlements during this period?
- Would specific measures to identify or screen at risk populations at work be required? In such case, further considerations need to be made to ensure that such measures will not breach any privacy issues under the law and cause embarrassment to the employee or expose the employee in question to discrimination by colleagues and friends. How much can you enquire about an employee's medical conditions, and to what extent can the employer collect, use or transfer such information? Health information is considered sensitive data under Thailand's Personal Data Protection Act, which is due to come into full effect at the end of May 2020. Employers need to take into account these privacy-related issues before implementing any measures that deal with the personal data of the employees.
- Do you need to implement a contingency plan if the employee's job requires travelling to the affected areas or meetings with clients or customers travelling from high-risk areas? To effectively mitigate any risks for the employees in such situations, would teleconferences be a better option? It may be worth considering that clients and colleagues in those areas may be reluctant themselves to meet your employees until the situation becomes clearer.
- It is also prudent to assess what the company’s liability is in the event that the employee becomes ill following the work-related travel.
- Do you have up-to-date information from trusted sources, e.g. World Health Organization website/press releases and Thailand's Ministry of Health press releases, on the current situations to be able to assess the situation on a daily or weekly basis?
- Have you developed or had in place an effective communication plan to regularly update employees on the status of the outbreak and help employees readily access information for precaution and protection, as well as reporting procedures?
- Have you assessed if outbreak-related health costs are covered under your company benefit plans and policies and/or by the government? If such is not yet covered, discussions should take place to consider what the options are.
These are only a few considerations that employers should reflect. It is a balancing act to get it right in terms of ensuring a safe workplace while also protecting yourself from liabilities and claims.