Asking The Right Questions On Workplace-Related Covid-19 Outbreaks — Dr Nirmala Bhoo-Pathy and Dr Victor Hoe

Employee engagement and building of trust within any organisation should remain as the foundation for the establishment of a safe workplace.

Of late, workplace-related Covid-19 outbreaks have sparked media frenzy in Malaysia, both in the mainstream media as well as in the social media. 

It has been more than a year since we had our first Movement Control Order (MCO) in the nation, and despite having more knowledge on Covid-19 and the SARS CoV2, as well as availability of effective vaccines against the disease, why are we still failing?

Why are we still seeing a rise in number of outbreaks, despite undergoing repeated cycles of MCOs dressed up 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?”, and “Who was supposed to monitor the workplaces to ensure that SOPs for prevention of Covid-19 are abided by?”

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 who largely comprise the low-income households, as well as migrant workers.

For these people, stigma is yet another component of suffering that they additionally endure apart from the physical, social and financial sufferings brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

We therefore would like to stress that prevention of outbreaks at the workplace is mainly 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. 

The small and medium enterprises (SMEs) specifically may require extra guidance, assistance and monitoring to make workplace safety a reality.

At this juncture, whereby the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO) has been lifted in most of the 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 posed here. 

For a beginning, we would like to echo our previous recommendation that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry start engaging corporate companies who have managed to successfully run their physical operations with minimal outbreaks to mentor the SMEs.

Companies coming forward to offer assistance to the government may be offered tax deductions, for instance.

A common goal here will be empowerment of the local industries in implementing physical distancing measures, and adapting their own standard operating protocols to maintain safety and health at the workplace amid the pandemic.

At the same time, the regulators must also be open to improve enforcement methods to ensure that monitoring of adherence to workplace SOPs are conducted in a fair and transparent manner. 

At the organisational level, employers need to elect a focal point or 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, should remain 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.

Dr Nirmala Bhoo-Pathy is an associate professor of epidemiology and public health, and Dr Victor Hoe is a professor of occupational and public health at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya.

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