Throughout 2021, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, specific occupational health and safety rules were reintroduced due to increases in infection rates. Mandatory face masks, physical distancing and hygiene measures were enforced, and the recommendation to telework was largely re-instated in phases of high epidemiological risk. In many countries, employers were obliged to perform a COVID-19 risk assessment and implement measures accordingly.
This article is one of a series that explores working life issues in the 27 EU Member States and Norway during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is based on information provided by the Network of Eurofound Correspondents and published as a set of individual country reports in Working life in the COVID-19 pandemic 2021.
The right to a safe and healthy workplace is included in the European Pillar of Social Rights (principle 10). Occupational health and safety regulations are essential to protect workers in the workplace: over the past few decades, they have substantially reduced the risk of hazards and have greatly improved working conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered extensive health and safety risks that have proved an enormous challenge for both governments and employers across the European Union. As a result, new health and safety rules have emerged, ranging from easily adopted measures, such as wearing face masks, to more intrusive measures, such as obligatory testing and vaccinations.
On 18 May 2022, the EU Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work reached an agreement on the need to recognise COVID-19 as an occupational disease in sectors where there is close physical contact, namely in health and social care sectors and home care assistance, as well as in sectors where there is an outbreak in activities with proven risk of infection. The recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease means that workers who contract COVID-19 in the workplace may be entitled to specific rights, such as compensation. This agreement is an important step in the implementation of the EU strategic framework on health and safety at work 2021–2027, adopted by the European Commission in June 2021. The framework identifies three key priorities for improving workers’ health and safety in the context of the post-pandemic world. Along with anticipating and managing change in the new world of work and improving accident and illness prevention, the third priority aims to increase preparedness for possible future health threats by drawing lessons from the COVID-19 health crisis.
Mandatory wearing of face masks and physical distancing
In virtually all countries, the obligation to wear face masks at work was implemented at some point during 2021 (as was the case in the first year of the pandemic) depending on the local epidemiological situation. In most cases, stricter rules on the wearing of face masks and the use of additional personal protective equipment were adopted for employees working in direct contact with customers or with vulnerable groups, such as in healthcare or elderly care. In some countries, such as Greece, Malta and Spain, face mask requirements were also temporarily extended to outdoor spaces. Masks of a higher quality (N95 or FFP2 masks) were mandatory in countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece and Slovenia.
Physical distancing measures in the workforce (if the nature of the profession allowed for it) ranged from between one and two metres, averaging 1.5 metres in most countries. In Austria, mandatory physical distancing was increased from one to two metres in the course of 2021 due to the emergence of more highly contagious variants of the virus.
Risk assessment by employers
In several countries, employers were obliged to perform a COVID-19 risk assessment and implement measures accordingly.
In Estonia, the regulation on biological hazards was updated in August 2021 to include specific measures relating to COVID-19. It states that in the event of the spread of COVID-19, a risk assessment must be carried out to protect the safety of workers in the work environment. Measures implemented by employers must be appropriate and proportionate. It is obligatory for employees to adhere to any measure introduced by their employer's risk assessment, such as the need for face masks or a vaccination (which could be the case in close contact work environments, such as in healthcare and the hair and beauty sector). If an employee refuses to carry out these new requirements, the employer must re-organise the work of the employee (for example, allocate other tasks or change the work location). If this is not possible, the employer has the right to dismiss the employee after first issuing a warning notice.
In Finland, if an employer’s risk assessment shows that the presence of non-vaccinated employees poses a health risk, the employer must re-organise the duties of these employees. If this is not possible, the employee can be offered another type of position that matches their experience and education.
In Sweden, each employer is required to carry out a risk assessment among the workforce to determine which tasks pose a heightened risk of infection and to implement actions needed to mitigate these risks. An ‘action ladder’ guides the process, beginning with the first step needed to eliminate the risk altogether (such as changing a physical meeting to an online meeting). If it is not possible to eliminate the risk completely, further steps on the action ladder should be taken to reduce the risk, including arranging lunch breaks to avoid large gatherings, using digital tools when possible, ensuring proper ventilation and putting up COVID-19 protective barriers, such as plexiglass screens. The final step on the action ladder is the use of personal protective equipment in situations where contact with many people is necessary and the other tools are deemed insufficient. Employers are required to fill out this risk assessment in writing, sign and date it and make it available to all employees affected by the actions.
Recommended and mandatory teleworking
Throughout 2021, most governments advised workers, both in the private and public sector, to carry out telework or remote work, including organising virtual meetings instead of face-to-face meetings. For example, in Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Latvia, Norway, the Netherlands and Spain, telework was recommended in circumstances where the nature of the work and the operating conditions allowed employees to work outside of the business premises. In Ireland in mid-November 2021, the government advised that workers should revert to working from home unless it was necessary to attend the workplace in person. In a small number of countries, there was even a temporary obligation on employers to allow teleworking; for example, in autumn 2021, Germany switched from recommending telework to making it obligatory for employers to allow teleworking when possible. In Portugal, telework was also made compulsory (for workers who could perform their tasks at home) during times of high infection rates.
Hygiene measures and employee training
In order to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, employers in many countries were responsible for implementing specific hygiene measures. For the most part, this included the provision of ventilation and the disinfection of work areas and objects frequently touched. In Lithuania, employers had to ensure ventilation of the premises at least every hour. Specific rules on the provision of personal protective equipment by employers were established in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia. In Romania, employers applied the following series of measures during periods of high infection:
- Hygiene conditions: provision of disinfectants such as hand sanitisers for personal hygiene, disinfecting surfaces (workspaces, common areas), provision of personal protective equipment (such as gloves and protective masks) and monitoring employee health status (temperature checks at the beginning of the working day).
- Employee training: in the field of safety and health at work.
- Organisation of the workspace: individual work spaces, maintaining physical distance in common areas, establishing one-way systems for employees to avoid congestion in busy areas and allocating dedicated spaces for employees belonging to vulnerable groups (such as people with chronic diseases or people over the age of 65).
- Work arrangements: flexible work schedule to avoid overcrowding, limiting business trips and encouraging online communication.
In Denmark, individual companies, rather than rules prescribed by national legislation, took charge of health and safety measures in the workplace. Although general guidelines and recommendations were in place, it was the employer's individual responsibility to prevent and manage the risk of COVID-19 infection in the workplace. In Sweden, the Work Environment Authority performed inspections in workplaces where there was a heightened risk of COVID-19 spreading, based on pre-existing legislation. The inspections ensured that employers introduced the required precautions in the workplace, primarily in high-risk sectors, such as schools, retail stores, train and ferry operators, dentists, abattoirs, state services offices, construction, cleaning and real estate companies, and restaurants selling take-away food.
In Bulgaria, employers were responsible for ensuring a safe and healthy working environment, including through the provision of training. All employees, including those returning from prolonged absences, such as parental leave, and newly hired employees, were obliged to participate in special training on COVID-19 occupational health and safety measures.
In Austria, business owners with more than 51 workers in the company were required to appoint a COVID-19 officer and prepare and implement a COVID-19 prevention plan.
Company initiatives regarding COVID-19 vaccinations
In 2021, individual companies in the EU launched initiatives to get their employees vaccinated, even when the national legislation did not stipulate a requirement for workers to be vaccinated.
In August 2021, the Dutch company Leaseplan introduced a vaccination obligation for its employees who wished to work in the office. The company stated that it would no longer welcome unvaccinated employees on its premises once teleworking requirements were not part of the government’s health and safety measures. In October, Deloitte Netherlands announced that it would perform random QR-code checks for employees who wanted to work in their offices.
In Romania, some employers recommended vaccinations and tests for their employees to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even though it was not a legal requirement. This applied, in particular, to sectors where the employees’ activities involved working with the public, for example in the hospitality industry, food delivery services, aviation, education and health sectors. However, there were no suspensions or termination of employment for those who did not comply with the recommendations.
Some companies collaborated with state institutions to organise vaccinations or periodic testing campaigns for their own employees, with employers covering the costs of testing. In Sweden, some employers and local municipalities tried to make vaccinations mandatory, but this was largely resisted. In Bulgaria, there were incentives for workers who got vaccinated, and in some collective agreements (such as in the education sector) two extra free days were granted.
While knowledge on the vaccination status of their employees is of great interest to employers, due to data protection regulations, this is not commonly provided.
In Belgium, the government developed a system to verify the vaccination rate in each company; employers could request anonymous data from the occupational physician or a similar institution. The goal of the system was to find out – in companies with a low vaccination rate – how employees could be encouraged to get vaccinated. A similar system is in place in the Netherlands, where company doctors are allowed to register vaccinations of individual employees. However, they are bound by confidentiality rules: they can only report the final vaccination number to the employer, allowing measures to be taken at an organisational level to provide the safest possible working conditions for employees. In Germany, a vaccination disclosure obligation was introduced and used, in particular, in high-risk occupations including pediatric nursing facilities, schools, nursing homes, prisons, community nursing services and specific medical facilities. In Spain, an employer could (if required) ask an employee whether they are vaccinated or not, as it is considered part of their role in occupational risk prevention to guarantee safety in the offices. However, since it is very sensitive medical information, the employee is not obliged to disclose this information.
Social partner involvement and views
Social partners were consulted on occupational health and safety regulations in several countries, mostly those with a strong social partner tradition (such as Austria). In Italy, the health and safety framework for working in the pandemic was defined and updated in accordance with the social partners’ protocols. In Ireland, a guidance note on a safe return to the workplace was published by the social-partner led Labour Employer Economic Forum Consultative Group, which recommended a phased and staggered return to work for office workers to address health and safety concerns.
In countries where employers were obliged to perform a risk assessment, depending on which appropriate measures were to be taken, employers favoured the disclosure of the vaccination status in order to implement suitable rules. In Germany, employer organisations stressed that employers needed to have a legal right to ask for employees’ vaccination status in order to implement the proposed rules in the workplace. However, the German Trade Union Confederation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund) rejected any obligation on employees to provide information about their vaccination status to the employer, as this would compromise employees’ data protection rights, in regard to sensitive personal data.
Various new occupational health and safety rules have been implemented throughout Europe in the wake of the pandemic. The widespread use of face masks, protective barriers, and physical distancing measures in situations with customer or co-worker close contact were implemented at the onset of the health crisis in 2020, and maintained over the course of 2021 depending on the particular COVID-19 situation. Telework was introduced to reduce face-to-face contacts and was recommended (and sometimes even mandated) in several countries where the nature of the work called for it. While the future course of the pandemic is highly unpredictable, a tool-kit with occupational health and safety regulations has now been instituted in all countries, which can be re-activated easily in the face of new waves of infection.
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