Tackling workplace clusters

IT has been more than a year since we had our first movement control order (MCO) and we have undergone more in various degrees of severity since then. Despite this, and having more knowledge of Covid-19 as well as availability of effective vaccines, why is the number of new infections recorded daily still high?

Of late, there has been a rise in workplace Covid-19 infections, too, raising questions on why workplaces, namely factories, are allowed to operate during MCO periods.But this is a wrong question to ask, especially after living with this pandemic for close to 500 days now. Life needs to go on and we have to accept that Covid-19 is not going away any time soon.

The questions to ask on workplace-related Covid-19 outbreaks should be “Why have we not made workplaces safe given all the time that we’ve had?” and “Who is responsible for monitoring workplaces to ensure that the standard operating procedure for prevention of Covid-19 infections are followed?”

We need to collectively acknowledge that the individuals who have been largely bearing the brunt of public anger are also the most vulnerable in the command chain, namely the employees. In the case of factories, they comprise mainly people from low-income households as well as migrant workers. Stigma is yet another burden that they endure apart from the physical, social and financial suffering brought about by Covid-19.

We would like to stress that prevention of outbreaks at the workplace is mainly the responsibility of regulators, government agencies and employers. However, we must accept that not all employers have the means to bear this duty on their own.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), in particular, may require extra guidance, assistance and monitoring to make workplace safety a reality. At this juncture where enhanced MCO has been lifted in most of Klang Valley, we would like to reiterate that all the relevant parties put aside their differences and start addressing the pertinent questions we have posed here.

For a start, we would like to repeat our previous recommendation that the International Trade and Industry Ministry engage with corporations that have managed to successfully run their operations with minimal outbreaks and get them to mentor the SMEs. Those who come forward to offer assistance to the government could be offered incentives like tax deductions.

A common goal here is empowerment of the local industries in implementing physical distancing measures and adapting their own standard operating protocols to maintain safety and health at the workplace.

At the same time, regulators must also be open to improving their enforcement methods to ensure that monitoring of adherence to workplace SOP is conducted in a fair and transparent manner.

At the organisational level, employers need to elect a focal point/person to oversee and ensure that all the relevant guidelines are duly followed. More importantly, employee engagement and building of trust within organisations, no matter how small, should remain as the foundation for establishment of a safe workplace. After all, SOP are mere documents and without buy-in from the end users, they would remain irrelevant.

DR NIRMALA BHOOPATHY , Associate professor of Epidemiology and Public Health

and DR VICTOR HOE ,Professor of Occupational and Public Health Faculty of Medicine Universiti Malaya

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