The Singapore government has revised safe management measures for employers to control a rise in COVID-19 infections in workplaces.
The updated measures, which came into force on 22 September, were introduced as the daily number of cases increase.
Singapore’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce for COVID-19 (MTF) had originally announced safe management measures on 8 September, including a snap-work-from-home regime for all employees in cases where a worker had returned to the workplace in the past seven days and tested positive.
The revised measures, which include reducing the duration of the snap-work-from-home regime from 14 to ten days, comes into effect this week as the government looks to mitigate the potential disruption to businesses.
The Strait Times reported that from 19 August, and with the easing of restrictions, up to 50% of employees had been allowed back to the office. It was the first time since 8 May that employees had returned to the workplace in such numbers after a prolonged period working from home.
However, in early September, the Ministry of Manpower, together with the Singapore National Employers Federation and the National Trades Union Congress, which comprise the tripartite powers, issued measures stating that firms with employees who were in the workplace in the seven days prior to testing positive for COVID-19 would have to make sure all employees who could work from home did so for 14 days.
According to Singapore’s Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the MTF, the safe management measures issued on 8 September were required to help slow down the virus’ transmission and to enable the government to expand Singapore’s vaccine coverage. Ministers do not want to impose another circuit breaker.
Last month, Singapore lifted many of its COVID-19 restrictions, including a requirement to carry out temperature checks on people entering buildings.
The government’s tightening of controls is partly in response to an increase in clusters in the workplace, which the ministry says is a result of lax safe management measures.
‘As Singapore continues to navigate its way towards becoming a COVID-resilient nation, employers and employees both have a part to play in reducing transmission risk at workplaces'
The guidelines note that all employees are required to wear a mask at all times, except when eating, drinking, consuming medication or where other equipment must be worn during the course of the work. However, employees that have a severe medical condition are allowed to wear a face shield instead.
Employers must take immediate action if any employee or regular contractor tests positive for COVID-19 via a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and had attended the workplace on any of the past seven days.
The decision this week to reduce the duration of the work-from-home regime is in line with Singapore’s quarantine period reduction for close contacts of COVID-positive cases, which was announced by the ministry on 10 September.
The snap 10-day work-from-home regime will apply to companies with three or more COVID-positive cases working in the same premises/branch in a period of seven consecutive days as this may be indicative of workplace transmission.
The MTF adds that affected workers, including onsite contractors and vendors who have been placed on snap work-from-home arrangements will be able to return to the office for ad-hoc reasons if they test negative using an antigen rapid test (ART). The test should be completed before they return, and not more than 24 hours before the end of their ad-hoc return to the workplace.
According to the revised measures, the snap work-from-home period will commence the day after the date of the latest COVID-positive test of the third employee.
The ministry says that employers and employees need to exercise social responsibility to self-isolate if they are known to be close contacts with the COVID-positive cases.
‘All affected employees are encouraged to monitor their health and administer ART self-swabs during the 10-day period at least twice a week, and before returning onsite,” the ministry has said.
After an employee or regular contractor has confirmed a positive test, employers must then immediately vacate and cordon off the immediate section of the premises where that individual had worked.
The ministry has clarified that employees are not required to vacate the building or the entire floor if there has been no sustained and close contact with the employee who tested positive.
Once a positive case been confirmed, however, employers are required to undertake a thorough clean and disinfect any relevant onsite areas and assets that were exposed, in accordance with Singapore’s National Environment Agency’s guidelines.
The ministry has also reiterated that employers must review and ensure adequate safe management measures remain in place. These include ensuring no more than 50% of employees able to work from home are at the workplace at one time; no social gatherings at the workplace; all meal breaks are taken individually; staggering start times and allowing flexible workplace hours; and observing a safe distance of at least 1 metre.
‘As Singapore continues to navigate its way towards becoming a COVID-resilient nation, employers and employees both have a part to play in reducing transmission risk at workplaces,' said the ministry in its latest statement.
‘We urge everyone to abide by the latest requirements, so as to keep each other safe.’
The ministry has said that, in cases where workplaces ‘severely lack safe management measures’, it will direct employers to stop operations. Business cannot resume until the employer can demonstrate that they have taken effective steps to ensure safe management measures are in place.
Employers who fail to comply face hefty fines. Under Singapore’s COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act, employers risk a fine up to $10,000 or a six-month prison sentence, or both. The fine and prison term doubles if there is repeated non-compliance.
As Singapore and other parts of the region continues the fight against COVID, we remain vigilant and conscious of the spread of the virus and how it affects the community,' commented Nurul Asshekin M-Le Masson, chair of IOSH Singapore Branch. 'With the dynamic changes that rocks the stability and consistency of how we support our members, IOSH Singapore branch remains steadfast in providing our members quality updates to maintain their competency and staying current.
'Keeping safe and being mindful of our circle of contacts. Every one can play a part to fight the virus together.'
In a separate move, the Singapore government announced last month that from 1 October, employees in selected sectors would be required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing under a new ‘vaccinate or regular test’ (VoRT) regime.
The sectors include healthcare, care for the elderly, settings with children aged 12 and below and where employees interact with customers in higher-risk mask-off settings such as personal care services, gyms and fitness studios.
The government is encouraging all employers to follow its lead and adopt the VoRT regime as a company policy for existing employees and new recruits.