COVID-19 - Guidelines for Return to Work in Germany

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Due to the gradually relaxed regulations of the federal government, many employers are considering getting their employees back to work in the coming weeks. However, employers must take a number of precautions when returning employees to work.

COVID-19 testing and access restrictions to the workplace

Understandably, employers want to take the most effective precautions against COVID-19 infection of workers, for example by restricting access to the workplace, especially by making access dependent on various requirements such as COVID-19 tests, temperature measurement or mandatory questionnaires.

Whether such measures are permissible in the light of the current corona crisis is untested law and will have to be decided on a case by case basis. In all this, the employer's interest in the result of the test or questionnaire must be weighed against the employees' interest in their physical integrity and their right to privacy. This will move in the direction of the interests of the employees, the more the employees' privacy is affected. Tests that are less invasive are therefore more likely to be allowed.

In principle, questionnaires are the least invasive method of gathering relevant information (e.g. if the employee feels ill, has a fever, has had contact with an infected person in the last 14 days). As long as the questions are limited to what the employer needs to know, questionnaires are probably allowed. Measuring body temperature is more invasive. In some federal states within Germany, fever measurement is already prohibited for data protection reasons, while in most federal states fever measurement should be allowed at least with the employee's consent. Although there is no legal prohibition on testing for COVID-19, it is probably only permitted if the employee agrees to a test.

Standards for health and safety at work

The occupational health and safety standards COVID-19 published by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs contain regulations on various precautions to be taken to protect employees when they return to work.

These standards, which were published in mid-April, are not a law. However, they are a very helpful guide for employers on the concept of occupational health and safety during the Corona crisis.

Employers will need to follow the guidelines closely as they are responsible for the health and safety of their employees in the workplace and part of the necessary protection is now the following guidelines:

A safety distance of at least 1.5 meters between people must be maintained: Appropriate barriers, markings or access rules must be implemented to ensure that this distance is maintained.

Transparent partitions must be installed in places accessible to the public: These partitions are already in place in most supermarkets, but are likely to become more widespread. If the required distance between employees cannot be maintained, such transparent partitions are one way of separating work areas.

Floor and wall markings: Experience has shown that where a large number of people gather, the safety distance should be marked (e.g. with adhesive tape).

Division of the workforce into rolling teams: If it is not possible to reduce the occupancy of work areas and social facilities, the introduction of staggered working and break times, shift work, division of the workforce into teams that visit the office on a rolling basis, etc. should be considered. This is particularly important in order to try to avoid affecting all employees or a larger proportion of the workforce if an infection should occur in one employee.

Hygiene rules: There are a number of rules on hygiene. These include the regular cleaning of door handles, handrails, etc. The employer must establish his own hygiene rules, e.g. rules for personal hygiene (washing hands, disinfection), hygiene at the workplace and in social rooms (cleaning schedules, provision of disinfectants, but also necessary safety distances between employees) and ventilation rules (opening windows, information on the ventilation system). We recommend that employees sign a declaration on hygiene standards to prove that they have been trained accordingly.

Work equipment: Particular attention must be paid to tools and work equipment. All work equipment should be used by one person only if possible. If the equipment is handed over to another person, it should be cleaned before use.

Business trips and personal meetings: should be reduced to the absolute minimum or, if possible, replaced by telephone and video conferences. This will be further enhanced by planned legislative changes such as the expansion of the possibilities of "online courts", where lay judges as well as parties, lawyers and witnesses can participate in court sessions via video, and the planned legislative changes that will allow works council meetings and collective bargaining to be held via video or telephone.

Mouth and nose covers (masks): At present, mouth and nose masks are mandatory in public transport and in public places. Even in cases of unavoidable contact with other people or if protective distances cannot be maintained, mouth-nose masks should be provided and worn. Protective clothing may only be worn by one person. The employer is obliged to provide protective clothing.

Company policies: Employers should establish transparent company policies on the above measures, which should be communicated to employees. In addition, the employer is required to establish company guidelines for rapid review of potential COVID 19 cases. This includes the possibility of contactless fever measurement. Until the suspicion is cleared by a physician, the employee is considered to be unfit for work. The potentially infected person should immediately contact a doctor or the public health department by telephone to clarify the suspicion.

Home Office: Even with the above measures, the home office is still the preferred method of working. Whenever possible, employees should work from home. This is particularly the case if the required safety distance cannot be maintained at the workplace.

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The regular occupational health and safety standards must still be observed and are only extended by the additional standards. If an employer does not comply with the requirements, he may have to pay compensation to the employees in case of illness. In addition, the employer may commit administrative offences and even criminal offences if the guidelines are not observed.

To ensure compliance with the above standards, especially in larger companies, it is of utmost importance to provide training and education to employees, not only to avoid the above-mentioned fees and criminal offences, but also to protect the health and safety of all employees.

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