Masks are gone, but employees can still refuse to work for fear of SARS-CoV-2

Business Insider SA
English railway employees learning about air raid preparation. (Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Railway employees at Blackpool are studying A.R.P.
English railway employees learning about air raid preparation. (Hulton Archive via Getty Images) Railway employees at Blackpool are studying A.R.P.

  • South Africa's last Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted – but special obligations for employers remain.
  • Employees can still refuse to work if they have a credible fear of exposure to SARS-Cov-2.
  • Labour minister Thulas Nxesi republished the rules on Friday, two days after government dropped the mask mandate.
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The requirement to wear a mask in public buildings is gone, and restrictions on gatherings have been lifted.

But any employee with reason to fear they may be infected with SARS-CoV-2 still has the right to refuse to work, and may face no repercussions for doing so, in terms of rules republished on Friday.

On Wednesday night, health minister Joe Phaahla yanked the last remaining restrictions on public life that were imposed to combat Covid-19. On Thursday, he said the risk to life had declined to such an extent that special measures were no longer required.

See also | Face masks are gone, border checks and gatherings ban dropped

On Friday, his colleague, labour minister Thulas Nxesi, republished a set of workplace rules first issued in February, which impose a range of special requirements on businesses when it comes to safeguarding their workers from the coronavirus.

Perhaps most notable in those regulations, after the end of the general mask mandate, is the protection of the right to refuse to work.

"Any employee may refuse to perform any work if circumstances arise which, with reasonable justification, appear to that employee or to a health and safety representative to pose an imminent and serious risk of their exposure to SARS-CoV-2 virus infection," one rule reads.

Workers need not go through any particular process, but can down tools and inform their employer of the reason why after the fact. Employees may not be promised any benefit for not using their right to refuse to work, and may not "be dismissed, disciplined, prejudiced or harassed" for refusing to work.

The regulations, formally known as the "Code of Good Practice: Managing Exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in the Workplace", require employers to create a risk assessment plan. That plan can require certain types of employees to be vaccinated, and such employees may then be compelled to provide proof of vaccination, and the employer must provide paid time off and transport for those who seek vaccination.

Employees who refuse to be vaccinated must be "reasonably accommodated". But for those who can provide a valid medical reason to not be vaccinated, an employer simply "must accommodate the employee in a position that does not require the employee to be vaccinated."

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