It is of the highest priority for any employer to provide a safe working environment for their employees. This includes keeping them safe from Covid-19. Now that the Covid-19 vaccine is being rolled-out, the question arises to which extent can an employer use the vaccine to ensure the safety of all employees?
This article unpacks vaccination strategies in the workplace for employers.
Vaccinations will play an important role in completely reopening the economy in South Africa and worldwide. What this holds for employers we are yet to see. But it is expected that more employees will be returning to offices either full-time or as part of a new hybrid work-from-home/work-from-office setup.
The South African Government plans to have 67 per cent of the population immunised by the end of 2021. This will happen in three phases where the last phase (Phase 3) is to vaccinate people above 18 years of age who do not have comorbidities. The bulk of the working population falls under this category. Thus the best time for employers to start thinking about their workplace vaccination strategy is now.
Can vaccinations be mandatory for employees?
Implementing a mandatory vaccination policy at work goes against the human rights of an individual, where a person has the right to choose. This is written up in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 - Chapter 2, stating: ‘everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right to security in and control over their body.’ As well as in The National Health Act, 2003, which states that a health service (which includes medical treatment) may not be provided to a user without the user’s consent.
Clive and Hofmeyer summarizes the factors you need to consider when thinking about implementing a mandatory vaccination policy:
"(i) the viability of continued remote work;
(ii) the number of vulnerable employees in the workplace;
(iii) the effectiveness of additional PPE where necessary;
(iv) temporary alternative placements;
(v) the employees exposure to the public and
(vi) the number of employees with religious and/or medical grounds for objection."
Thus, should an employer see the need to implement a mandatory vaccination policy at work, it mustbe weighed up against the laws and regulations in South Africa and the needs within the company. Keep in mind, that should the company want to keep a record of which employees have been vaccinated and which not, appropriate data storage facilities to manage confidential employee records are needed as per the Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013 (POPIA).
Vaccination challenges faced by employers
In a study conducted by the World Economic Forum and Ipsos in November 2020, they found that 33% of South Africans would not take the vaccine when it becomes available. This still means that the necessary 67% of people are still willing to take the vaccination to achieve herd immunity. However, this poses a challenge for employers in the short-term as some of their employees will get vaccinated and some will not. This leaves room for possible discrimination by fellow colleagues and management. Thus, how can you, as an employer ensure the safety of all your staff without discriminating against the people who decided not to get vaccinated?
What can employers do now?
Educate your employees on their rights and the benefits of the vaccine. Education will play a large part in managing the workplace vaccination strategy. The biggest concerns regarding the vaccine are uncertainties about the effectiveness, possible side effects and if someone can still transmit the virus after vaccination. Provide employees with up to date information from reliable sources.
It is likely that we will still need to wear masks and sanitize our hands for the foreseeable future, regardless of the vaccination roll-out. There is still a long road ahead of us before we can officially say Covid-19 is behind us, but it is encouraging to see that as a country and economy we are moving forward.
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