Public life is slowly returning to normality in Germany as stores, restaurants and cafes begin to reopen. However, a return to ”business as usual“ seems a long way off. Companies and employers need to consider different priorities and complex provisions when preparing the return to the workplace.
In general, employers have a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees. They have to assess possible risks to employees’ safety and health and take measures based on this assessment as well as identify and take additional measures where necessary to ensure the workplace is safe.
Employers in Germany especially need to:
- Set up a hygiene regime, taking into account the nature of the business and the individual workplace to ensure a safe workplace. This includes minimizing contact between the employees, maintaining a strict cleaning regime and providing face masks;
- Provide information, training and supervision of the employees to ensure the health and safety at work (e.g. providing instructions to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres between individuals, prohibiting attendance at the workplace if the worker shows any symptoms, communicating hand washing rules);
- Carry out a risk assessment, which includes identifying the risk, deciding how likely it is that someone will be harmed and taking action to eliminate the hazard, or, if that is not possible, controlling the risk (for example, by sending employees home if they feel unwell).
The German Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has provided guidance regarding occupational safety in the time of COVID-19 (the information is available in various languages) on its website.
Social distancing regarding working space and working time
According to the Government guidance a distance of at least 1.5 metres should be maintained between employees, customers and visitors. Where this is not possible, other safety measures should be taken, e.g. installing transparent protective walls or wearing face masks. Where possible work should continue to be carried out from home. External visitors should be reduced to a minimum and their personal data as well as their times of entry and departure should be documented.
In order to ensure social distancing, employers might also consider changes in working hours and shifts (e.g. by implementing staggered starting times, new shift requirements, establishing or breaking up teams). It is also recommended that employers introduce guidelines for the use of meeting and conference rooms and recreation or communication areas as well as rules for visitors.
This may lead to various employment issues, including changes to employment terms to provide for the different shifts or working times and an obligation to continue paying wages during time off. Also the co-determination rights of works councils need to be considered.
Where employees violate the rules for social distancing, employers should send the employees home immediately and consider disciplinary measures, in particular written warnings.
Further protection measures
Employers need to consider additional cleaning requirements, provision of personal protection equipment (e.g. face masks and gloves) and screens. This might include checking ventilation systems and air conditioning systems.
Wherever possible, work equipment should only be used by one employee and be cleaned regularly. Otherwise, employees must be provided with suitable protective gloves. Company cars need to be equipped with utensils for hand hygiene, disinfectant, paper tissues and garbage bags.
In order to reduce business trips and personal meetings, employers should provide their employees with the necessary technical equipment (e.g. mobile phones and laptops).
Employers should encourage their employees to continue to work from home. If this is not possible due to the nature of the business, employees should be urged to observe recommendations regarding safety and hygiene, such as:
- Avoiding public transport (employers might need to expand parking areas, issue free parking tickets, etc.).
- Avoiding peak hours (employers might need to change shift patterns).
- Keeping the minimal physical distance (1.5 metres) and wearing face masks and gloves on public transport.
- Limiting the number of contacts when traveling and keeping track of the people met (e.g. customers, clients, suppliers), to be able to trace contacts to (potential) COVID-19 cases.
- Trying to avoid busy areas.
Generally, employers should reduce business travel for employees to a minimum and advise them to conduct virtual meetings instead where possible.
The steps required will depend on the nature of the business. Where a works council is established, employee representatives serving on the council have to receive information and be consulted on topics relating to these matters. Employers should also consult occupational safety specialists and medical officers to ensure compliance with infection control measures.
For further information please visit our Norton Rose Fulbright “Returning to the workplace: A global guide”.