Health & Safety

Most of the FAQs 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. However, an updated version has been uploaded on the 14 May 2021 to reflect new legislation.

Face Masks

1.  Can masks be enforced in work environments where there is no external interactions?

In accordance with Articles 26 and 27(c) of the Public Health Act, any person shall, outside his/her residence, both when going to an indoor place and outdoors, wear a medical or cloth mask or visor in a proper manner covering the nose, mouth and chin of the person.

2.  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?

Employees who refuse to wear masks can be reported and if found guilty will be liable to a penalty of hundred euros (€100) for each and every instance in which these regulations are breached. Provided that if the offence is admitted and the penalty is paid before proceedings are commenced before the Commissioner for Justice, the penalty applicable shall be reduced to fifty euros (€50).

3.  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?

Every adult is legally obliged to wear a mask. Nevertheless, employers have the legal obligation to provide employees with the necessary health & safety related equipment, as well as to supervise employees.

4.  Can the employer oblige employees to wear masks in an office environment (e.g. for 8hrs a day)?

As stipulated in Answer 1, the wearing of masks is mandatory for indoor and outdoor use with the exemption of private homes and private vehicles.

The only exemptions to wear a face mask are persons with severe cognitive, physical, mental or respiratory impairments who have difficulties tolerating a mask as certified by a licensed medical practitioner, in which case such individuals shall at all times carry the relevant medical certificate exempting them from wearing a mask.

The temporary removal of facemasks shall be permissible in the following situations:

(a)    when speaking or providing assistance to any individual who relies on lip reading to communicate;

(b)    during official public speaking provided that a physical distance of at least two (2) meters between individuals is maintained: Provided that the delivery of lessons or lectures in schools, universities or other education establishments shall not be construed as official public speaking;

(c)     if requested to for identification purposes, including at banks, at the airport or seaport or by law enforcement officials;

(d)    to receive any medical or cosmetic treatment or service involving the face or mouth;

(e)    to take medication; or

(f)      when seated at establishments where food and drink is served.

Mitigation Conditions and Guidelines for Office and Workplaces have been published (March 2021) https://deputyprimeminister.gov.mt/en/health-promotion/covid-19/Documents/mitigation-conditions-and-guidances/Guidance_For_Offices_And_Workspaces.pdf

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?

Yes, refer to Question 1.

6.  What do you suggest for a restaurant setting? Face masks and visors in summer could be very uncomfortable.

According to L.N. 402 of 2020, the temporarily removal of face masks is permissable when seated at establishments where food and drink is served. Restaurant staff are obliged to wear face masks.

A set of mitigation conditions and guidances for restaurants have been published in May 2021:

https://deputyprimeminister.gov.mt/en/health-promotion/covid-19/Documents/mitigation-conditions-and-guidances/Standards_Restaurants_Pools_Hotels_Accomodation.pdf

7.  Are respirators sufficiently adequate for air borne particle protection? What about 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.  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?!

The law does not differentiate between face shields and face masks. However, from a medical point of view – the first line choice should be face masks, while face shields may be considered as a second line choice of defence.

9.  In the case of shops, employees are in a confined space with customers coming in. Are employees obliged to wear marks?

Yes, refer to Question 1.

The Superintendent of Public Health orders that all retail outlets shall implement the following standards:

(a)    exercise the right of refusal of entry into the shop/booth of customers if they are visibly unwell or have respiratory symptoms.

(b)    ensure that inside the shop every person keeps a minimum of 2 metres from others.

(c)     ensure that maximum capacity of customers that the retail outlet /lotto booth can hold at any one time inside the shop (retail area) is one person per 4 square metres, including staff.

(d)    allow only one (1) customer and one (1) member of staff at any one time inside a shop/booth with a total area less than 4 square metres.

(e)    affix visible signage at the entrance of the shop indicating the maximum capacity that the shop/booth can hold at any one time.

(f)      indicate with visible markings outside and inside the shop/booth two (2) metre distances that customers shall respect whilst queuing for services.

(g)    provide an appropriate 70% alcohol hand-rub at the entrance of the shop/booth and ensure that all persons sanitise their hands prior to entrance.

(h)    ensure that customers and staff always wear a face mask or visor whilst inside the shop/booth.

These standards are issued under the Public Health Act Chapter 465 of the Laws of Malta and have been effective from 26th April 2021. https://deputyprimeminister.gov.mt/en/health-promotion/covid-19/Documents/mitigation-conditions-and-guidances/Standards%20Guidance%20Retail%20Outlets%20Shopping%20Malls%20Lotto%20Booths.pdf

10.  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.

11.  It looks like many people in Malta are overusing the latex/nitrile gloves. When used incorrectly they can cause more problems. What is the proper 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.

Social Distancing

12.  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 worn. The need for personal hygiene and the cleaning of items of equipment used by more than one person could never be emphasized enough.

13.   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.)

14.   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. Where such measures are not possible, then the employer is required to conduct a risk assessment. The employer should consider allocating other rooms, not normally used for work – examples of such rooms indicate reception areas and canteens. It is advisable that where social distancing is not possible, the employer puts up perspex as dividers between employees.

Mitigation Conditions and Guidelines for Office and Workplaces have been published (March 2021) https://deputyprimeminister.gov.mt/en/health-promotion/covid-19/Documents/mitigation-conditions-and-guidances/Guidance_For_Offices_And_Workspaces.pdf

15.    What can be done if some employees do not respect social distancing?

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/Remote Working & Risk Assessments

16.  Should teleworking/remote working be encourage by employers?

Due to COVID-19, yes, whenever possible teleworking should be encouraged. This depends very much on the role the individual occupies within the company, as it is not always possible for employees to avail themselves of teleworking/remote working. Furthermore, employers are not legally obliged to provide teleworking/remote working arrangements.

17.  What are the obligations of the employers for teleworking/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.

18.  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.

19.  Is the employer required to do risk assessments of the home space when on remote working?

No – please see reply to question 17.

20.  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 17.

21.  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 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.

Air Conditioning

22.  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.

23.  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.

24.  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.

25.  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.

26.  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.

Other General Questions

27.  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?

Yes.

28.   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.

29.  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.

30.   Is checking  the employees’ temperature prior to entering workplace, obligatory?

The recording of temperature has extremely limited value as not all persons with COVID-19 have a high temperature.

31.   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.

32.   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.

33.  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.

34.   Is the decision to go back to the office to be taken by the employer? Can the employee have a say in this?

According to Public Health Authorities, all employees should return to work. 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.

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.  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.

36.   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)?

Public Health Authority has published various guidelines under the Deputy Prime Minister’s website https://deputyprimeminister.gov.mt/en/health-promotion/covid-19/Pages/mitigation-conditions-and-guidances.aspx