As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world, an increasing number of businesses find themselves walking a tightrope between their obligations to, on the one hand, both protect the public and provide a safe and healthy workplace, and on the other hand to respect the individual constitutional rights of employees to make their own choices in matters of bodily and psychological integrity, religion, belief and opinion.
These deeply conflicting rights and obligations have left employers asking themselves questions like: “Must we insist on our employees having the vaccination to protect their colleagues, our visitors, our customers and the public at large?” and “If so, can we actually force unwilling employees to get jabbed or are we in for unfair practice or wrongful dismissal claims?”
The Minister’s “Amended Consolidated Direction”
On 11 June 2021 the Minister of Employment and Labour issued an “Amended Consolidated Direction on Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Certain Workplaces” under the National Disaster Regulations in an attempt to address those questions.
The Direction is long, detailed and complex, setting out a host of “minimum measure” requirements for workplace safety during the pandemic, so specific professional advice is essential here. But in a nutshell there is now an official guideline for employers wanting to make vaccination compulsory or partially compulsory. At a minimum, comply with all these specified obligations –
1. Undertake a risk assessment
This risk assessment (supposed to have been completed by 2 July 2021) was to determine (a) whether vaccinations were to be made mandatory considering the “operational requirements of the workplace” and if so (b) who was to be compulsorily vaccinated, taking into account the risk of transmission to employees through their work and their risk for severe Covid-19 disease or death due to their age or co-morbidities.
In assessing whether or not your particular workplace needs a mandatory vaccination policy, include factors such as the ongoing requirement to enable employees to work from home where possible (still applicable even under Adjusted Level 2), the nature of the work in question, whether adequate ventilation is possible, whether adequate social distancing measures are possible and so on – the list is endless.
As regards that 2 July deadline, it seems likely that many (perhaps most) employers missed it. If you are in that boat, what should you do now? There is no clear guidance on that, but the consensus of expert opinion seems to be that you should still comply, as soon as possible.
2. Develop or adjust a vaccination and protective measures plan
Based on the risk assessment, this plan must outline both what protective measures you have in place, and what vaccination measures you intend to implement.
3. Consult on the risk assessment and plan
Consultation must be with any representative trade union and any health and safety committee or representative. We should discuss under this heading also the questions of communication, education and training. We all know that together with some rational and valid concerns, there is an avalanche of fake news around Covid-19 and vaccinations. Inform your employees fully of their rights, help them to distinguish fact from fake, address their individual fears and concerns, explain the benefits of your plan to everyone, and strive for consensus.
4. Make the plan available
The plan must be available to an Occupational Health and Safety Act inspector and to the person/s listed in point 3 above.
5. Other requirements and factors
No list of this nature can ever be comprehensive but consider factors such as paid time off and transport to vaccination sites, sick leave for employees who suffer side-effects, counselling for “vaccine hesitant” employees and the like. There are also defined procedures to be followed when employees raise medical or ethical objections to being vaccinated (for example, the employer may need to try to find an alternative position in the business for such an employee).
And of course every workplace will be different, which leads us to …
The bottom line
There is talk of workplace vaccination being officially made compulsory either across the board or in certain sectors, whilst media reports suggest that an increasing number of large employers are already implementing compulsory vaccination policies on the basis of legal advice received. There is also much speculation that our courts will support dismissal of employees who refuse vaccination in appropriate cases, and there is even a report of a High Court Judge insisting on either proofs of vaccination or negative PCR tests “for the general well-being of all parties in attendance at court”.
Bear in mind however that every situation, every workplace, and every employee will be unique – and with the high stakes involved, tread with extreme care and only after taking professional advice.