Asking the right questions on workplace-related COVID-19 outbreaks – Bhoo-Pathy N, Hoe VC

Of late, workplace-related COVID-19 outbreaks have sparked a media frenzy in Malaysia, both in the mainstream media as well as the social media. It has been more than a year since we had our first Movement Control Order in the nation, and despite having a whole more wealth of knowledge on COVID-19 and the SARS CoV2, as well as the availability of effective vaccines against the disease, why are we still failing?

Why are we still seeing a rise in the number of outbreaks despite undergoing repeated cycles of MCO dressed in various names?

The logical sequence of the next question from the public then happens to be,

“Why allow the workplaces to be open, namely the factories?”

The latter, however, is a wrong question to ask: It is no more justifiable to pose this question, especially after being in this pandemic for close to 500 days now. Central to this discussion is that life needs to go on amid the pandemic, and we all have to accept that COVID-19 is not going away for some time. What are the right questions to ask on workplace-related COVID-19 outbreaks then?

Well, they should read, “Why have we not made workplaces safe for employees given all the time that we had?”, “Who was supposed to monitor the workplaces to ensure that Standard Operating Procedures for prevention of COVID-19 are abided by?”.

“Why have we not made workplaces safe for employees given all the time that we had?”

As a society, we need to collectively acknowledge that the individuals who have been largely bearing the brunt of public anger are also the most vulnerable ones in the command chain, i.e., the employees namely those from low-income households as well as migrant workers. In these people, stigma is yet another component of suffering that they additionally endure apart from the physical, social and financial sufferings brought about by COVID-19.

We, therefore, would like to stress that the prevention of outbreaks at the workplace is largely the responsibility of regulators, government agencies and employers. Also, we must be clear that not all employers have the means to bear this duty on their own. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) specifically may require extra guidance, assistance and monitoring to make workplace safety a reality. At this juncture, where the EMCO 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 some of the ‘right’ questions that we have posted here.

For a beginning, it is strongly suggested that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry government start engaging corporate companies who have managed to successfully run their physical operations with minimal outbreaks to mentor the SMEs, and empower them in implementing physical distancing measures and adapting their own standard operating protocols to maintain safety and health at workplace amid the pandemic. We also would like to echo our previous recommendation, which was mooted more than a year ago that employers need to elect a focal point/ person to ensure that all the relevant guidelines are adhered to. Importantly, employee engagement and building of trust within any organisation, no matter how small, remains as the foundation for the establishment of a safe workplace. After all, any SOPs are mere documents and without buy-in from the end-users, they remain irrelevant.

Written by Associate Professor Dr Nirmala Bhoo Pathy and Professor Dr Victor Hoe.

The write-up was also published in the Star, Malay Mail and CodeBlue news portals.

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