The below frequently asked questions were provided by Dr Mark Gauci, Chief Executive Officer at OHSA Malta during a webinar entitled Health & Safety during COVID-19 held on 7 May 2020.
1. Can masks be enforced in work environments where there is no external interactions?
The wearing of face masks at the place of work is not part of the Health & Safety legislation and is not included in the recommendations given by the Department of Health. The decision of whether employees should wear face masks should be based on a risk assessment.
If an employer can ensure adequate social distancing within the workplace, has provided suitable facilities for ensuring personal hygiene, the workplace is adequately ventilated through natural means and there are no external interactions, then face masks are not normally indicated, except if deemed necessary in the risk assessment. It should be highlighted that all measures indicated to be taken in a risk assessment should be enforced by the employer – in this case it essentially means that if face masks are indicated to be worn, then it remains an employer’s duty to enforce such a requirement.
2. Is it the company's obligation to provide face masks? Can an employer ask employees to wear face mask at work without providing it for them?
If the risk assessment identifies that face masks are needed for the health and safety of employees, then employers should be providing face masks at no cost to the employee. Employers are also under the obligation of providing training to employees on how to use face masks and any other health & safety related equipment, as well as supervise employees to protect the workers.
3. Can the employer oblige employees to wear masks in an office environment (e.g. for 8hrs a day)?
Same as Answer 1
4. In the case of shops, employees are in confined space with customers coming in. Are employees obliged to wear marks?
In the case of retail outlets, the use of face masks has been mandated by the public health authorities and therefore their use by workers is an obligation.
5. Are employees required to wear mask/shield when moving around the common areas or to visit other department areas, even if respecting the social distancing?
Same as Answer 1
6. How do you deal with people who do not cooperate and refuse to wear PPE such as facemasks identified in the risk assessment stating that they view the masks as posing a threat to their health?
OHSA encourages an open line of communication between the management and the workers, to allow full participation in the deicision making process. The Health & Safety legislation emphasizes that it is the worker’s right to be consulted on all measures that can effect their Health & Safety. Once the use of face masks is identified as a necessary measure, and assuming that workers have been consulted, trained and informed, then they cannot refuse to wear the masks.
7. Aren't only respirators adequate for air borne particle protection, or even surgical masks?
Face masks are primarily intended to protect third parties from a possibly infected person – as they are not effective in protecting the user (unless they are of FFP3 standard – however these are only indicated for health care workers treating COVID-19 infected patients).
8. In case of Fire Drills simulations, should (or is it a must) that face masks are supplied beforehand (knowing that employees will be next to each other at the assigned assembly points?
Whereas OSHA is not the competent authority with regards to fire safety, OHSA has been suggesting that fire drills can be postponed to a later stage. If the length of postponement is relatively short, then such a decision may be taken unilaterally by a company. If the period of postponement is going to be markedly longer, then an employer would do well to seek the views of a person who is competent in fire safety.
9. What do you suggest for a restaurant setting? Face masks and visors in summer could be very uncomfortable.
Guidelines from the Public Health Department and OHSA will be issued when the hospitality sector will be able to operate again.
10. In some countries constuction site are opening but workers MUST use masks if working near others. Is this the case for Malta?
If the social distancing of 2 meters cannot be applied, then it is advisable for workers in all sectors to use face masks.
11. I called 111 yesterday - they clearly stated that face shields are enough and no need to also wear a face mask. Which version is the correct one?!
Face shields are primarily intended to protect against splashes and airborne liquids and droplets which originate from an infected person, as when an infected person coughs. – the face shield works by stopping such airborne liquids from reaching other persons. A non-infected person is similarly protected against airborne liquids coming out of an infected person. However, a face shield does not stop airborne particles which are suspended in an infected person’s exhaled breath – these can only be stopped by covering the nose and mouth (through the use of a face mask). In such instances, face shields offer limited protection and their use should therefore be limited to situations where wearing a mask may not be possible – for example in the case of persons with long beards. Thus, the first line choice should be face masks, while face shields may be considered as a second line choice of defence.
12. Is it fine to leave a disposable/surgical mask in the sun to have the virus eliminated with UV, and then use again)?
Single use masks should never be worn more than once, but need to be discarded safely after use.
13. It looks like many people in Malta are overusing the latex/nitrile gloves. When used incorrectly they can cause more problems. What is the propoer way of disposing such materials.
There are few indications where gloves should be worn as a precautionary measure, and therefore their use, except when indicated in a risk assessment, should be discouraged as much as possible.
14. Is social distancing obligatory in construction sites?
The recommendations by the Department of Health, that of having a social distancing of 2 meters, applies to all places of work. Where this is not possible, it is advisable to reduce the number of workers in a construction site to allow adequate space. In all other situations, face masks should be worne. The need for personal hygiene and the cleaning of items of equipment used by more than one person could never be emphasized enough.
15. What is the number of persons advisable to travel in company vehicles?
This depends on the size of the vehicle. It is important to leave the windows open to allow natural ventilation and passengers should wear masks. The interior of the vehicle should be frequently cleaned with soap and water (e.g. seats, steering wheel, gearing shaft, etc.)
16. Can working with masks and keeping windows down safe and acceptable?
This question is not clear enough – if it refers to use of company vehicles, then the answer to question 15 applies.
17. In an office environment where space is limited and there is not enough room to house staff at a 2 metre distance, what is the next best solution? Abroad H&S authorities are stating a 1 metre distance within offices.
Asking workers to work remotely remains the best option. This measure, together with that asking vulnerable workers to stay at home, is usually enough to reduce the number of workers present on site. Where such measures are not possible, then the employer should consider allocating other rooms, not normally used for work – examples of such rooms indicate reception areas and canteens.
If and after taking all the above measures the workers still cannot maintain social distancing, then the workers should use masks., in addition to other measures (e.g. sanitizer, access to soap and water, advise on personal hygiene, etc.)
18. What can be done if some employees do not respect social distance?
This is a very tricky situation to handle as some people tend to move close to people as a natural habit. Whereas an employer should keep repeating the measures which are required to be taken, workers should be assertive enough to ask any person, whether a worker or a third party to respect social distancing rules.
Teleworking & Risk Assessments
19. Should remote working be encourage by employers?
Yes, whenever possible teleworking should be encouraged.
20. What are the obligations of the employers for remote working?
According to national legislation, the health and safety of employees working from home remain the responsibility of the employer. However this is normally taken to be limited to the equipment provided by the employer and the work assigned (with regards to volume of work and its complexity, and whether the employee has the ability and skill to carry out the work assigned; this also holds for any software required to be used by employees). An employer should also provide information to the employees on proper postures, the need to take regular breaks, ensuring adequate lighting etc.
On the other hand, an employer should not be liable for matters such as the structural solidity of the building, fire safety and evacuation procedures, temperature or ventilation at the employee’s home.
21. Can the risk assesssment be carried out by the employer? Or by an official body?
Every enterprise is encouraged to build up the competence to carry risk assessments in-house. External service providers should only be resorted to when the technical issue cannot be resolved in-house (e.g. certification of equipment, examinations of lifs and boilers for ventilation systems, etc.) Use of risk assessment templates should be encouraged – these are usually free of charge and normally adequate for the purpose for which they are intended.
22. Is the employer required to do risk assessments of the home space when on remote working?
No – please see reply to question 20.
23. If the risk assessment is relatively low to moderate, would you still suggest teleworking as a primary measure if operations is still going smooth?
Yes – teleworking, when possible, should be resorted to as much as possible. However, there are exceptions to this statement, such as for example when the number of workers is small, the workers are confined to single rooms and the equipment is not shared, social distancing is always guaranteed, there are adequate personal hygiene facilities, and there is no contact with third parties.
24. Companies that allow employees to work from home, is it enough to provide H&S guidelines and a self-risk assessment checklist? Reason being we cannot audit homes. If certain employees do not meet the H&S requirements at home (no ergonomic chair) at home, the company’s approach is to ask the employee returns to the office (as long as the authorities allow it). Can an employee insist to remain at home as he/she considered the Virus risk being higher than the risk of an ergonomic chair?
See reply to question 20.
25. Re working from home, I get that we must make it a priority but is this purely until the pandemic is over?
Teleworking is being recommended as one of the measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, there are many benefits that can be associated with allowing workers to work from home, even outside of a pandemic – smaller workplace footprint required, less water and electricity bills, less industrial relations grievances etc. Obviously, this has to be seen within a strict operational framework measures output and its efficiency and effectiveness. Outside of a pandemic, the decision to introduce teleworking remains an employer’s prerogative.
26. What do you suggest about AC's at the office in view of Covid-19?
The answer depends on the type of AC units installed. If these are stand-alone units which service one single room, then these can be utilized as long as the filters are cleaned regularly. If the AC system is one that services the entire workplace, then one should first check the filtering mechanisms in place - this information can be obtained either from the installer or by contracting a ventilation engineer to check on the filtration system. If the filters are such that they can filter microscopic particles, then they can be used so long as the filters are cleaned and disinfected regularly. If no such filters are installed, then it would be best to rely on natural ventilation and use fans to circulate the air.
27. Does the Airconditioning unit need to be serviced before switching it on for the first time after a company lockdown period of 1 month?
Servicing of air conditioning units should be carried out according to manufacturer’s specifications, or according to the advice of a competent person.
28. Can A/C be switched on inside public transport?
Public transport and the need to protect members of the general public falls outside the applicability of the OHS Authority Act.
29. What about service/repairs on air conditioners installed in vehicles? Is this recommended?
Servicing of AC units inside vehicles should be carried out according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
30. What measures should one take when cleaning vehicles? Is spraying with sanitiser adequate?
The use of soap and water to clean vehicles is sufficient – this is because the virus is hydrophobic and soap dissolves the virus’ protective membrane.
31. Do employees in a retail store have the right to ask a customer to leave if they are not respecting the regulations put into place?
32. How effective is fumigation as a disinfection for vehicles and high risk areas?
The cleaning of cars with soap and water as a routine procedure is normally sufficient. Fumigation of cars as a rule is not normally indicated, and should be limited to those instances ordered by the public health authorities.
33. Can you suggest the requirements for someone coming to do repairs in an office?
Social distancing should be kept between the person doing the repairs and employees at the office. Any third parties entering the building should be required to wear face masks and wash their hands or use sanitizer as soon as they enter the building.
34. Is it too early to return to the office as of yet even if on roster basis?
Please see previous answers to this question – the number of workers at places of work should remain being limited for the time being and measures put in place.
Guidelines have been published by both OHSA and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in collaboration with the European Commission to ensure that employers have the necessary information on safeguarding all places of work. The document by the European Agency provide examples of best practices per sector which should be followed.
COVID-19: Back to the workplace: https://bit.ly/2SbXiJD
OHSA's guidance on Workplace Readiness: https://bit.ly/3588nAN
35. Is checking fever of employees, prior entering workplace, obligatory?
The recording of temperature has extremely limited value as not all persons with COVID-19 have a high temperature.
36. How do you use restrooms, are there any measures to be taken here?
Restrooms should be submitted to a regular cleaning protocol. Employees making use of restrooms should be instructed to wash their hands with soap and water before entering and on leaving restrooms.
37. Are surface disinfectants active against bacteria, viruses (HBV-HCV-HIV) and yeast enough to be used to disinfect office surfaces in the current situation?
Cleaning down work surfaces with soap and water or an alcohol-based liquid are enough. It is important to stress that proprietary brands which are not based on soap solutions or alcohol and which claim to be effective against bacteria and viruses are normally insufficient to eradicate the virus.
38. Many premises and office are closed or have been closed for some time. What action should one take note to have a problem regarding Legionella disease?
Once workers start returning to work, then the usual precautions against Legionella should be taken; these measures and recommended action are listed on the public health authorities’ website (despite its workplace connotations, Legionella is considered as a public health concern, and the responsible entity against Legionella is the Public Health Department).
39. Will there be specific guidelines for schools and childcare centre, to ensure a safe classroom layout, break time etc?
The measures to be taken is the responsibility of the Public Health Department and not of OHSA.
40. Is the decision to go back to the office to be taken by the employer? Can the employee have a say in this?
It is advised that there will be an open line of communication between management and the workers. Employers should ensure that they are taking the necessary measures to make a safe working environment, by applying social distancing, providing sanitizers, educating the workers on personal hygiene, etc. If such measures are being taken by the employer, it is not within the employee’s right to refuse going to work.
41. Should interviews be held online or can face to face interviews be held now?
Ideally, interviews should be held online. Where this is not possible, suitable measures as indicated before are required to be taken.
42. If vulnerable persons are asked to return to work by the employer, can they refuse? What protection are they given?
Vulnerable persons are protected by L.N. 111 of 2020 Protection of Vulnerable Persons Order and thus employers cannot ask such persons to return to work. Vulnerable persons who wish to return to work are to apply for an exception from the Department of Health.
43. Will specific recommendations be published for local offices, including training requirements, procedures in case there is a symptomatic person at the office, cleansing procedures (regular cleaning and following a case)?
Various guidelines have already been published and referenced elsewhere as replies to other questions.
44. Is there a protocol for cleaning premises by cleaners when there is a change over, in case of rental business for example?
Basic rules on cleaning need to be followed.