Singapore updates workplace advice to minimise Covid-19 disruptions to business operations

Written on 2 Oct 2020

Employers will need to follow safe management measures to protect workers and workplaces from a re-emergence of Covid-19 or face temporary closure, fines and imprisonment for non-compliance

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for Singapore has updated its advisory on the “Requirements for safe management measures at the workplace” – which became effective from 28 September 2020 – with the aim of minimising the risk of a widespread re-emergence of Covid-19 in the community, while balancing the need to minimise disruptions to business operations.

To ensure a Covid-safe workplace, employers must manage three central aspects: the workers; the workplace; and those who become unwell at the workplace. The updated safe management measures are applicable to general workplace settings.

However, employers operating in specific workplaces – such as construction worksites and shipyards – may have additional requirements to fulfil and should refer to sector-specific requirements. These include the Building and Construction Authority for construction, Enterprise Singapore for food and beverage as well as retail, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry for the marine and process sectors. The Singapore government has published information about the various sector specific requirements.

Work from home

The government wants employers to actively enable employees to work from home – and work-from-home remains the default position. As far as is reasonably practicable, all employers should provide the facilities necessary and direct every worker to work from home.

Employees who are able to work from home have been able to return to the workplace since 28 September 2020 to help better support business operations. Companies should continue to conduct virtual meetings as far as possible to minimise physical meetings between employees and with suppliers and contractors, for example, by using tele-conferencing facilities.

The return to the workplace must not exceed half of the employees’ working time. For employees who are able to work from home, employers must limit their exposure at the workplace and ensure that they continue to work from home for at least half their working time.

As this practice is measured over a reasonable period not exceeding four weeks (the requirement will be pro-rated for part-time workers), the permutations may be varied. The return to the workplace can either be initiated by the employee and agreed upon with the employer, or directed by the employer.

Also, no more than half of employees who are able to work from home should be at the workplace at any point in time, in order to limit the number of workers exposed at the workplace and to reduce crowding in common areas.

Technological solutions

For employees who are still unable to work from home, employers should review work processes, provide the necessary IT equipment to employees, and adopt solutions that enable remote working and online collaboration. The onus is on employers to show that they have made a reasonable effort to facilitate working from home.

Employers are encouraged to leverage technology to ensure business continuity and safe management. This includes reviewing and transforming business processes through technology to support remote working, such as e-payment, e-invoicing, e-signatures.

The advisory also provides a list of available resources such as technology solutions and grants (see Annex A) to assist companies. In addition, the Infocomm Media Development Authority provides a list of digital solutions and resources that aims to make digitalisation more accessible to businesses. Eligible businesses can also apply for the Productivity Solutions Grant to support business transformation and put in place flexible work arrangements to minimise spread of Covid-19 (for example, work-from-home and staggered hours).

Companies should also pay special attention to vulnerable employees. Vulnerable employees are persons who are aged 60 and above, and patients who are immunocompromised or have concurrent medical conditions, as specified in an advisory from the Ministry of Health (MOH). For example, vulnerable employees could work-from-home or be temporarily redeployed to another role within the company.

Precautions and flexibility

For employees at the workplace, employers must ensure a range of precautions is in place. They must: stagger start times and allow flexible workplace hours; implement shift or split team arrangements; ensure work-related events adhere to safe management measures; minimise socialising; ensure employees wear masks at the workplace; and encourage employees to observe good personal hygiene.

Staggering start times and allowing flexible workplace hours will help spread out the number of employees at any one time and reduce congestion.

At least half of all employees at the workplace should start work in the workplace at or after 10am, where possible. Timings of lunch and other breaks should also be staggered accordingly. Flexible workplace hours provide flexibility for employees, who might be able to work from home but decide to return to the workplace. The flexibility allows for the reduction of time spent in the workplace and allows for working from home during the day.

If it is not feasible for employers to implement these flexible arrangements due to operational reasons – for example, manufacturing and production line activities – other systemic arrangements must be used to reduce the congregation of employees in common spaces. For example, there could be an arrangement for different groups of employees to arrive and depart through different entrances and exits.

Split teams

Employers should implement shift or split team arrangements. Where possible, employers must split employees at workplace premises into teams that are each restricted to one worksite. There should be no cross-deployment or interaction between employees in different shifts, teams or worksites, even outside of work.

Employers must ensure clear separation of employees on different shifts or split teams, such as implementing human traffic management measures and stepping up cleaning of common areas during shift or split team changeovers.

If cross-deployment cannot be avoided – for example, due to the nature of the job – then additional safeguards must be taken to minimise the risk of cross-infection, such as having systems in place to ensure that there is no direct contact between the cross-deployed personnel. If cross-deployment or interaction between employees is critical for business operations, these companies will be required, when requested by MOM or their sector agency, to demonstrate why this is the case.

Events and socialising

All work-related events – those that are not organised primarily for social interaction - that proceed at the workplace must adhere to current safe management measures and requirements. Work-related events that are allowed are those primarily involving employees or stakeholders, such as conferences, seminars, corporate retreats, staff training sessions, as well as annual and extraordinary general meetings.

The number of persons per event must not exceed 50 persons to limit the risk of exposure to infection. Attendees must also maintain at least one-metre safe distancing between individual attendees, as is the requirement for the workplace.

Where possible, food and drinks should not be served at workplace events. If deemed necessary for practical reasons to serve meals, individuals must be seated and served individually and minimise contact with one another while eating. Meal durations should be kept short to minimise the period that individuals are unmasked, and the meal should not be a main feature of the event.

Employers must not organise or encourage social gatherings within or outside the workplace, and must ensure that employees adhere to the permissible group size based on prevailing guidelines on social gatherings at the workplace, including during meals or breaks.

Masks and hygiene

Employers must ensure that all onsite personnel, including employees, visitors, suppliers and contractors, wear a mask and other necessary personal protective equipment at all times at the workplace, except during activities that require masks to be removed. Masks will have to be worn immediately after the activity is completed.

Employers should ensure that they have sufficient masks for all employees, including any need to replace masks more frequently due to workplace conditions (e.g. humid workplaces, call centres where the nature of the work may necessitate frequent mask changing). Where possible, employers should consider improving the working environment for employees to enable them to sustain wearing the masks.

Employers should encourage their employees to observe good personal hygiene, such as washing their hands regularly and refraining from touching their face.

SafeEntry and travel

Access at the workplace should be limited to only essential employees and authorised visitors. Employers must use the SafeEntry visitor management system to record the entry and exit of all personnel, including employees and visitors. Any person who is unwell must be refused entry to the workplace.

Employers must ensure that employees and visitors declare via SafeEntry or other means (such as electronic or hard-copy records), before being allowed to enter the premises, that they:

  • Are currently not under a quarantine order or stay-home notice;
  • Have not had close contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case in the past 14 days (this is not applicable to Covid-19 frontline workers or recovered individuals within three months of their first positive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) Covid-19 test); and
  • Do not have any fever or flu-like symptoms.

Employers should ensure that their employees adhere to MOH’s prevailing travel advisory.

Safe distancing

If physical interaction cannot be avoided, precautions should be taken to ensure that there is clear physical spacing of at least one metre. This can be done through physical means, such as with barriers between workstations, the relocation of workstations, and correct distancing between meeting room seats. Safe physical distances of at least one metre apart should be demarcated, where possible, with visual indicators.

These physical and demarcation precautions should be applied in the following situations: between all persons in meeting rooms, in work areas, and at workstations; and at all times during work-related events held at the workplace. The monitoring and enforcement of safe distancing could be aided by appropriate technology, such as CCTVs and video analytics.

Employers who are service buyers should also require their suppliers and contractors to implement similar safe distancing measures, so that operations and business interactions with these suppliers and contractors are kept safe.

Where physical interactions are still necessary (for example, for the delivery of goods), employers must adopt precautionary measures such as scheduling delivery times by different suppliers in a staggered manner. The durations of such transactions should be kept as short as possible.

Touchpoints and cleaning

Employers should reduce the occurrences of, or need for common physical touchpoints in the workplace where possible by, for example, deploying contactless access controls. Where physical contact is needed, additional safeguards must be taken to minimise the risk of cross infection such as frequent disinfection of touchpoints.

The cleaning of workplace premises will need to be stepped up. Employers must ensure that common spaces, particularly areas with high human contact, are regularly cleaned. Where physical meetings are held or meals are taken in common spaces, such as pantries or canteens, employers must clean and disinfect tables between each meeting.

Machinery and equipment shared between different employees across different shifts or alternate teams need to be cleaned and disinfected before changing hands. The sanitation and hygiene advisories disseminated by the National Environmental Agency must be adhered to.

Employers must ensure that cleaning agents (such as liquid soap and toilet paper) must be available at all toilets and hand-wash stations. Disinfecting agents (such as hand sanitisers) must be installed at all human traffic stoppage points within the workplace, such as entrances, reception areas, security booths and lift lobbies. Disinfecting agents (for example, disinfectant sprays, paper towels and wipes) must be provided at meeting rooms and other common spaces such as pantries or canteens.

Unwell workers

Employers must ensure that there are regular checks for temperature and respiratory symptoms for all onsite employees and visitors. This should be done at least twice daily and where relevant. Employers must be able to demonstrate that these checks are in place during inspections.

Employers should encourage all employees to download and activate the TraceTogether app. Data recorded by TraceTogether is stored on the user’s phone, and is only uploaded when required by MOH, when the user is confirmed to have Covid-19. This will assist MOH to more quickly identify potential close contacts of Covid-19 patients and reduce disease transmission.

Monitor and guard

Employers need to actively monitor unwell employees and guard against incipient outbreaks. Employees at the workplace who have visited a clinic must submit records to their employers of their medical certificates (MCs), any diagnoses provided (but only for Covid-19-related symptoms, including acute respiratory infections), and, if they were tested for Covid-19, the results of their tests.

Employers must take preventive action to guard against incipient outbreaks at the workplace. For example, they should advise employees who are unwell to stay at home and consult a doctor rather than going to the workplace. They should require these employees with MCs and any of their close contacts at the workplace to closely monitor their health before returning to the workplace.

Where possible, employers should ensure that each employee visits only one clinic for check-ups if unwell. Otherwise, employees should inform the clinic of all recent doctor visits over past 14 days for any symptoms that may be related to Covid-19.

Suspected and confirmed cases

An evacuation plan must be prepared for unwell or suspected cases, as well as for other onsite personnel. Any employee who is feeling unwell or showing symptoms of illness should report to his employer, leave the workplace and consult a doctor immediately, even if symptoms may appear mild.

For incapacitated or unconscious individuals, employers must clear the area of other personnel and administer aid immediately. Employers should call 995 for an emergency ambulance to ferry them to the nearest hospital.

Employers must track and record these cases as part of their safe management measures. A follow-up plan must be put in place in the event of a confirmed case. Upon being notified of a confirmed case, employers must adopt the following precautionary measures:

  • Immediately vacate and cordon-off the immediate section of the workplace premises where the confirmed case worked. There is no need to vacate the building or the whole floor if there had been no sustained and close contact with the confirmed case; and
  • Carry out a thorough cleaning and disinfecting all relevant on-site areas and assets that were exposed to confirmed cases, in accordance with the National Environment Agency guidelines.

For worksites with confirmed cases, businesses could be suspended if there are public health grounds.

Sustainable systems

Employers must establish a sustainable system to implement the safe management measures for as long as necessary in order to provide a safe working environment and minimise risks of Covid-19 outbreaks. Employers must also ensure that the following measures are in place, communicated and explained to employees prior to resuming work onsite. (Annex B offers a checklist of safe management measures that should be in place for business activities to resume and for guidance on what should be included in the monitoring plan.)

Employers must ensure compliance with Safe Management Measures and timely resolution of outstanding issues. The monitoring plan should, at a minimum, include details on the steps taken to ensure the requirements are communicated and followed and how any anomalies or non-compliance will be identified.

The plan should also highlight risk mitigation strategies and proposed steps to remedy and document any non-compliance.

Officers and signs

Employers will need to appoint safe management officer(s) (SMO) to assist in the implementation, coordination and monitoring of the system of safe management measures at the workplace. Employees who wish to report breaches or poor practices can do so via SnapSAFE, an app that allows the reporting of workplace safety and health issues to MOM.

For unionised companies, union leaders or workplace safety and health officers could be appointed as SMOs. Employers must provide appointed SMOs with adequate instruction, training, information and supervision as is necessary for them to fulfil their required duties.

The duties of the SMO include:

  • Coordinating the implementation of Safe Management Measures, including identifying relevant risks, recommending and assisting in implementing measures to mitigate the risks, and communicating the measures to all personnel working in the workplace;
  • Conducting inspections and checks, to ensure compliance at all times. Any non-compliance found during the inspections should be reported and documented;
  • Remedying non-compliance found during the inspections and checks through immediate action; and
  • Keep records of inspections, checks and correction actions, to be made available upon request by a Government Inspector.

Signs should also be put up to remind employees and visitors to observe all measures in place.

Although Employers are responsible for ensuring that safe management measures are in place, employees must also do their part and adhere to the measures to create a safe working environment.

Non-compliance penalties

MOM and sector agencies will take calibrated enforcement actions based on the areas of non-compliance that are found. MOM will direct employers to stop operations at the workplace if the safe management measures are severely lacking and employers will have to take steps to ensure that safe management measures are in place before operations can resume.

Under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act, failure to comply with safe management measures is punishable with a fine up to $10,000 or imprisonment up to 6 months, or both. Repeated non-compliance is punishable with a fine up to $20,000 or imprisonment up to 12 months, or both.