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Lifting the lockdown: how to protect India's workers

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Three experts give their views on how India can gradually lift the lockdown while protecting workers from the risk of catching or spreading the deadly coronavirus.


With the national lockdown in India being extended until at least 18 May, it seems the country will have to continue to follow a number of strict rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus for some time to come.

However, when announcing the 14-day extension on 1 May, the government relaxed some of the restrictions in the ‘Green’ and ‘Orange’ zones of the country. These are classed as areas where the risk of the deadly virus spreading among the population is lower than the ‘Red’ or ‘hotspot’ zones.

The government had previously lifted a number of restrictions on the operation of business and industry in lower risk areas on 20 April, particularly outside the major cities. This including allowing the resumption of all agricultural work; some essential construction activities such as road building; the operation of cargo trucks across state borders; and the operation of certain manufacturing plants, such as food processors in rural areas and producers of essential goods.

However, all of the industrial and commercial establishments are required to adopt social distancing and other precautions, such as thermal scanning of employees’ temperatures, frequent sanitation of the workplace and staggered lunch breaks for workers.

With India now attempting to gradually re-open its economy, Safety Management asked three experts for their views on how the nation’s workers can be protected, both from the risk of catching Covid-19 and infecting others as workplaces begin to re-open.

We interviewed:
Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). The CII works to help the development of India, partnering with industry, government and civil society. It works closely with government on policy issues and seeks to enhance business opportunities for industry.

Dilip Chenoy, Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). The FICCI articulates the views and concerns of business and industry to policy makers and seeks to influence policy and engage debate, both with policy makers and civil society.

Suresh Tanwar, Head of Audit and Consultancy at the British Safety Council (India). Suresh is a health and safety practitioner with significant experience in areas such as auditing, training and consultancy. He has worked both for large Indian conglomerates and the Indian divisions of multinational organisations.

What kind of steps should industry be taking as the lockdown is lifted to ensure the health and safety of their employees?

Dilip: As the lockdown is gradually lifted, industries need to ensure the proper disinfection of every open area of the building or office and properly sanitised transportation should be organised for the safety of their employees.

All goods from air transportation also must be disinfected with 70 per cent alcohol, and the team performing the disinfection should wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE). There should be thermal scanning at the entry point in operation. However, for efficient screening practices, thermal guns (to read the temperature) must be made available and staff must be educated on checking everyone’s temperature.

A process also needs to be in place to track and report the available quantities of stocks of masks, disinfectants etc. Employers need to ensure that employees fill in the self-declaration form regarding their wellbeing and follow social distancing norms.

All employees should be mandated to use Aarogya Setu app, a recently launched government mobile app to help people identify the risk of contracting the coronavirus. Developed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, this uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth and location services and supports 10 Indian languages and English. It is available for download on Google’s Play Store and Apple App Store for Android and iOS mobile platforms, respectively.

Dilip Chenoy, Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Photograph: FICCI

Chandrajit: The CII has suggested different protocols for many sectors for safety, sanitation and hygiene.

It is essential that the entire value chain within the workplace as well as related services such as loading and unloading, transport etc, should follow strong processes for ensuring disinfection at regular intervals, hand washing time, sanitation of machines, and so on. We have recommended that while social distancing norms must be maintained, a stipulation of 50 per cent staff strength or transition of shifts may not be required and it should be left to the company to determine its safety measures within the norms.

Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Photograph: CII

Suresh: Employers should build confidence and morale by engaging, consulting and communicating effectively with staff. Risk assessment and crisis management must be given the required focus.

There should be alignment between enterprise risks identified at top level and at site levels. Companies also need to form a task force or crisis management centre and teams to look at emerging suspect cases, daily updates, monitoring of social distancing and hygiene etc. Prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals is also a critical step in protecting workers, customers, visitors and others at workplaces.

Employers should also focus on developing and communicating relevant policies and procedures including reporting and isolation protocols, social distancing guidelines etc. Meanwhile, a self-monitoring and declaration process plays an important role in ensuring workers’ health and safety.

Employers should inform and encourage staff to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of Covid-19. Each employee must self-declare that they are free from coronavirus symptoms, including stating that no one in their family has any symptoms.

All companies should be ready with effective planning, including most likely, worst case and best case scenarios.

Suresh Tanwar, Head of Audit and Consultancy at the British Safety Council (India).

What guidelines might be issued to businesses to tackle the health and safety challenges after the lockdown?

Dilip: As of now, the government has issued circulars on various guidelines for industries, including some of the standard operating procedures to be followed at manufacturing sites and in the office set up of commercial establishments. The situation on the ground is being continuously monitored. However, depending upon the situation and the assessment by health departments and local administration, these guidelines could be revised.

Chandrajit: The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued safety guidelines for partial exit. In the later phases of the planned exit, further relaxations are expected in the sectors which are opened up. However, there will be a requirement that health and safety protocols must be followed.

The CII would urge the government to ensure that, while a company’s management should be made responsible for all sanitation procedures at their workplace, they should not be held culpable for any incidences of Covid-19 among the workforce.

What suggestions would you make to the government and other authorities on ways of protecting workers from Covid-19?

Dilip: The government must ensure that masks, gloves and sanitisation products are available to be provided to the employees. The local authorities must ensure that the fumigation and sanitisation of the workplace and factories are done at regular intervals.

Authorities should also consider random testing of the employees’ post-lockdown. If someone is found infected, the premises should be cordoned off and the employees should be advised to quarantine for next 14 days.

Also, as the lockdown is gradually lifted, the government could look at opening up public transport like buses, taxi cabs etc in a limited way, with strict compliance of social distancing norms. The government could also look at providing fiscal support for the re-mobilisation of workers to support affected employees.

Chandrajit: Employee safety should be of paramount importance for enterprises. In the event a positive case of Covid-19 is detected in one part of the plant, the entire factory need not be shut down. However, a shutdown could be necessary in the areas affected as well as the common areas. The CII has also said that two shifts could be permitted for essential items.

Suresh: The government should ensure that the nation follows the key principles of emergency response and crisis management. This means ‘Overreact and then scale down’ to be in better control. We must therefore be prepared for the worst-case scenario. There is a significant risk of further pandemics in future too and therefore we need to be more agile to prevent and pre-empt them.

What health and wellbeing measures should people keep in mind while working from home?

Dilip: Considering the current situation facing the country, the work from home scenario looks to be persistent.

The employees should be provided with adequate technological infrastructure to undertake the official assignments. However, in addition to the tools, proper training should be imparted to the employees. Organisations should prepare a working from home policy; set virtual office hours to ensure optimal productivity; and set realistic targets during the current scenario, while understanding the limitation of the employees.

Employees should also be trained for the new working environment, such as how to act during ‘virtual’ or online meetings.

An organisation’s human resources and administrative department has a major role to play during this difficult time. They should be in regular touch with employees to ensure their wellbeing. Organisations should provide emotional and steady support to employees during the lockdown.

Another major challenge while working from home is the issue of cyber security and cyber fraud. Employees should use data loss prevention software and a virtual private network (VPN) for office work as far as possible. The use of digital signatures and encryption should also be considered.

Chandrajit: When working from home, employees need to be conscious of the fact that safety, hand washing, and sanitation must still be followed in their entirety even if they are not going out.
In the event of any case of ill health that could be Covid-19, they should inform their employer and follow the prescribed advisories from the government. The CII would urge all those working from home and going to work to download the Aarogya Setu app and remain informed of the situation at all times.

Suresh: In relation to working from home, organisations should adopt a holistic view
towards the correct use of display screen equipment (DSE), such as personal computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. It is also important to consider undertaking an ergonomic review of the home workers.

Click here for the latest news and advice from the Indian government on tackling Covid-19.

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