Current obligations for all employers
While remote work is no longer mandatory or recommended, and almost all covid-19 prevention measures in shops, restaurants and public life have been removed, employers should still take certain prevention measures in the workplace to guarantee that their employees can work safely during the current stage of the covid-19 pandemic. In light of this, article I.2-27 has been inserted in the Code on Wellbeing at Work and provides for prevention measures in the event of an epidemic or pandemic in general.
These special prevention measures, which have been set out in a new edition of the Generic Guide to Working Safely in the Event of an Epidemic or Pandemic (the Generic Guide), vary depending on the severity of the health emergency. The Generic Guide introduces three phases:
- the vigilance phase;
- the intervention phase; and
- the critical phase.
The vigilance phase is applied to the current stage of the covid-19 pandemic and will remain effective until 11 May 2022 at the earliest.
A royal decree dated 21 February 2022 added article I.2-27 to the Code on Wellbeing at Work. This article has a broader scope than the current covid-19 pandemic in order for it to apply to potential future epidemics or pandemics.
The main objective of this new article is that employers should start to adopt special prevention measures in the workplace that will allow them to respond better in the event of a widespread health emergency.
The special prevention measures that employers must take vary depending on the severity of the health emergency. Three phases have been introduced (which differ from the phases that the "corona barometer" provides) to measure the situation's severity.
This first phase provides measures to control the spread of an infection. It includes the basic level of protection in the event of an epidemic or pandemic. This phase is automatic: it applies as soon as the federal government declares an epidemic or pandemic and ends two months after the end of the emergency state.
Regarding the current pandemic, the federal government decided on 11 March 2022 to end the epidemic state of emergency. However, the vigilance phase will remain effective until 11 May 2022. Employers, therefore, must still take a number of preventive measures, which are detailed below.
This second phase provides measures to control a threatening outbreak and/or to limit the spread of an infection, including cluster management. This phase is activated:
- in companies – by the employer, following advice from the company doctor where there has been increased circulation of the infection and/or a (threatening) outbreak among staff;
- across an entire sector – by a protocol concluded by the competent joint committee(s) where there has been increased circulation of the infection and/or a (threatening) outbreak in the sector concerned; and
- in all or certain companies or for certain activities – by the competent authority where there has been increased circulation of the infection in (certain parts of) the country.
This third phase provides measures for containing an epidemic or pandemic and for avoiding a full or partial lockdown or company closures. This phase is activated where there has been an outbreak and/or a highly increased circulation of the infection following the same framework provided for in the intervention phase.
The latest edition of the Generic Guide sets out specific prevention measures that employers must take during the different phases of an epidemic or pandemic. The scope of these measures has now been generalised to apply to any epidemic or pandemic, considering the nature and specific characteristics of the infection and the severity of the epidemic or pandemic.
The Generic Guide may be supplemented at sectoral level by sector-specific measures, following an agreement between the social partners in the sector.
The Generic Guide and the sectoral supplements are available in Dutch and French on the Federal Public Service Employment's website.
Current obligations for all employers
Given that the epidemic state of emergency has not applied since 11 March 2022, and the vigilance phase now applies for two months from this date, employers are still obliged to take the necessary prevention measures in accordance with the new Generic Guide. Considering the rules of social dialogue and the results of risk analyses, employers must continue to take appropriate special prevention measures adapted to the specific working conditions of their business.
During the vigilance phase, maintaining social distancing where possible is still required. If social distancing is not possible, wearing face masks is still recommended. Further, employers are recommended to provide sufficient ventilation and to organise lunchrooms and canteens in such a way that the number of people sitting at the same table is limited to four or six individuals, depending on the layout of the space.
For further information on this topic please contact Esther Soetens or Annabel Coopman at ALTIUS by telephone (+32 2 426 1414) or email ([email protected] or [email protected]). The ALTIUS website can be accessed at www.altius.com.