THE LIABILITIES OF CORPORATES AND BUSINESSES TO ENSURE PREVENTION OF SPREAD OF COVID-19 IN THE WORKPLACE
To mitigate the hardships faced by businesses, certain additional activities were allowed in areas that are not within hotspots and containment zones after April 20, 2020, and more such activities may be permitted from May 3, 2020 onwards. Businesses currently have a lot of questions regarding their express obligations while operating in these times, and additional steps that their employees can take to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. There has also been some confusion regarding the personal liability of higher management of corporates in cases where any employees test COVID-19 positive. The following article delineates the specific obligations for companies in their workplace and factories, and the extent of their liability.1. What are the guidelines issued by the government which all corporates and places of business must comply with? Running a business and resuming operations or continuing them in times of lockdown will have to be done particularly carefully, considering how easily this novel virus can spread. The government has specified the steps that all employers must take while running operations.
At the workplace, employers
• Temperature screening
• Sanitisers readily available all around
• One-hour gap between shifts and staggered lunch breaks to
ensure social distancing
• Persons in vulnerable categories to be encouraged to work from
• Use of the government-launched Arogya Setu App to be
• Sanitization of work place between shifts
• Large meetings to be prohibited
In manufacturing establishments,
the following steps are mandatory:
• Frequent cleaning of common surfaces
• Mandatory hand washing
• No overlapping shifts and staggered lunch breaks
• Intensive communication and training on good hygiene practices
[See Annexure I, Order No.
40-3/2020-DM-I (A) dated April 15, 2020 issued by MHA, Govt. of India].
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has issued
Standard Operating Procedure for Social Distancing (SOP) for Offices,
Workplace, Factories and Establishments. Very specific measures such as areas
where disinfecting is necessary are listed, use of public transport is
completely discouraged and employers are expected to provide vehicles full only
to 30-40% of their capacity for transporting employees dependent on public
transport, all machines and vehicles entering the premises must be disinfected,
hand wash and sanitisation through touch-free mechanism is to be made available
at entry and exit points, meetings of more than 10 people are discouraged, no
more than 2-4 people to travel at a time in lifts/hoists, spitting is strictly
prohibited, and other such measures have been specified with details of
execution. [See Annexure II, Order No. 40-3/2020-DM-I (A)
dated April 15, 2020 issued by MHA, Govt. of India].
A few notable measures which are otherwise
also essential for general welfare are that there is to be a strict ban on use
of tobacco to prevent employees from sitting, and also, that employers must
mandatorily provide medical insurance for all workers.
Thus, the government has issued
detailed guidelines for cleaning and ensuring adequate hygiene and social
distancing in workplaces that are in operation, or will soon be so. These
guidelines are specific and must mandatorily be followed by employers, else
they will be liable to penalties under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
What is the personal liability of CEOs and other higher management personnel in
case employees test positive?
Clause 21(i) of the MHA Consolidated
Guidelines dated April 15, 2020 states that the district magistrates must
strictly enforce the guidelines, and penalties will be collected from all who
violate the same. The MHA had already previously directed the states/UTs to
ensure strict compliance with the guidelines issued. Some misapprehensions were
raised from the wrong interpretation of these clauses, leading companies to
believe that the employer or CEO will face direct legal action, such as
imprisonment, if a COVID-19 positive case is found in the factory or workplace,
and that the workplace will then be sealed for 3 months thereafter.
A clarification has been issued by the MHA
that no such clauses or directives are present in the consolidated guidelines,
and the apprehensions are misplaced. It was further clarified that no fresh
licence or statutory approval is required for resumption of permitted activity
during the lockdown period. [See Clarification, No.
40-10/2020-DM-I (A) dt. April 23, 2020 issued by MHA, Govt. of India].
Therefore, employers/CEOs will
not be personally imprisoned or legally reprimanded if a COVID-19 positive
employee is found on their premises. It has also been clarified that no fresh
statutory approval is needed for resumption of activities during the lockdown
What can employees do on a personal level to prevent the virus from spreading
in their workplace?
The task of ensuring a safe work space cannot
be left on the employer alone. All social distancing and hygiene guidelines
will become redundant if employees do not actively follow them with rigour. The
World Health Organisation has also issued some guidelines on how employees can
also help their organisation in containing the spread of this disease.
On a personal level, employees must keep their
work stations clean and disinfect the surfaces they are working on, their
keyboards, stationery, etc. Employees can also carry hand sanitisers along with
themselves, and sanitise their hands as frequently as possible. Masks, while
already mandatory, should be kept clean by employees themselves to ensure their
Additionally, communication is key during
these times. Any information that an employee has about their own condition or
a possible case on the premises must be shared, so that appropriate measures
can then be taken. Further employees experiencing even the mildest of symptoms
must stay home. [See “Getting Your Workplace Ready for
COVID-19, issued by WHO on March 3, 2020].
Thus, as already known, efforts
on a personal level can make a person safe themselves and greatly help in
containing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
By Shiv Mangal Sharma
Advocate Supreme Court