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Insights into Editorial: Working safely: On workplaces during the pandemic



Opening up economic production from a lockdown, even partially, when the COVID-19 pandemic has not peaked in the country poses an extraordinary challenge.

Countries around the world are focusing on making the workplace safe, and issuing guidelines to help workers return to their jobs.

Reducing the number of people present at any given time is a universal principle, either through resort to shifts, or arrangements to enable employees to work from home.

The Union Health Ministry has addressed the issue through a manual of preventive measures that covers all types of workplaces and depends heavily on behavioural change, with some additional requirements for confined spaces such as offices.

Health Ministry issues new guidelines for workplaces:

  1. The Ministry directed that anyone diagnosed as a suspected/confirmed case of COVID-19 should immediately inform the office authorities and isolate themselves.
  2. Any staff requesting home quarantine based on the containment zone activities in their residential areas should be permitted to work from home.
  3. Also, any staff reportedly suffering from flu-like illness should not attend office and seek medical advice from the local health authorities.
  4. The guidelines have been issued following a revision of the testing pattern where, in addition to earlier criteria, the strategy has been widened to include front line workers involved in containment and mitigation of COVlD-19, all hospitalised patients who develop Influenza Like Illness (lLl) symptoms and all symptomatic ILI among returnees and migrants within 7 days of illness.
  5. Fortunately, the first line of defence against the novel coronavirus is a set of simple measures that involves little expenditure: physical distancing of at least one metre, mandatory use of face masks or cover, frequent hand washing with soap, respiratory etiquette, sanitising contact surfaces and self-monitoring of health.
  6. These requirements have by now become familiar to everyone, and employees need only be nudged into adopting them through persistent communication, free provisioning of masks and sanitising materials, and organising office space suitably.
  7. Physical distancing of even one metre, if not the ‘do gaz’ or six feet that Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated, does pose difficulties because of the lack of space and density of workers in many places.
  8. But employers should see the value of keeping staff attendance at safe levels even within the legally permitted ceiling, which now extends to 50% in specified sectors and even in some government offices.
  9. Failure to maintain distancing, more so in a poorly-ventilated, closed environment, gives the virus a free run, as Chennai’s wholesale vegetable market showed starkly.

What happens when someone in the office tests positive?

In case one or a few persons who share a room or a closed space are found to be suffering from symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, the following measures are recommended:

Place the ill person in a room or area where they are isolated from others at the workplace. Provide a mask/face cover till such time he/she is examined by a doctor.

Report to concerned central/state health authorities. Helpline 1075 will be immediately informed.

A risk assessment will be undertaken by the designated public health authority (district RRT/treating physician) and accordingly further advice shall be made regarding the management of a case, his/her contacts and need for disinfection.

The suspect case if reporting very mild/mild symptoms on an assessment by the health authorities would be placed under home isolation, subject to fulfilment of certain criteria.

Closure of workplace:

If one or two cases are reported in the office, places visited by the patient over the last 48 hours will be disinfected.

Work will be resumed after disinfection. In case of a large outbreak, the building will be sealed for 48 hours after disinfection, while the staff will work from home until the building is declared fit for occupation.

The Health Ministry also said that no decision has been taken as yet to replace hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), introduced as a game-changer to arrest the spread of COVID-19, as a prophylactic, with HIV combination drugs, after reports of experts demanding that it be dropped from the safety guideline list of drugs prescribed for high-risk persons, including healthcare workers.

With experts questioning the effectiveness of HCQ, a senior health official said the drug was under review “but no decision has been taken to drop it just yet”.

Since the COVID-19 situation was a dynamic one and now with the lockdown being relaxed, a relook was being done by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).


The Centre’s protocol for symptomatic cases at the workplace, requiring testing, and, where warranted, quarantining of both the worker and close contacts, and a two-day closure of offices experiencing an outbreak, should underscore to employers the importance of prevention.

Responsibility, however, does not devolve entirely on offices and establishments, and it is imperative for other activities, such as public transport used by many workers, to meet COVID-19 requirements.

Some institutions are mandating installation of the Aarogya Setu app by employees returning to work, when the legal basis of this monitoring mechanism remains shaky and there are no assured benefits in terms of health care.

At this stage of the pandemic, when a gradual resumption of economic activity in multiple sectors ranging from construction to food takeaways is a necessity, the most feasible interventions at the workplace are voluntary and those that cost the least.

There may still be occasion to resort to intermittent lockdowns if opening up leads to mounting cases.

A prudent course would be to navigate the present with a minimalist approach, as the quest for a medical breakthrough makes progress.


Insights Current Affairs Analysis (ICAN) by IAS Topper