Role of the occupational physician in combating COVID-19: what do the regulations say?

Author: Catherine Legardien (Legal Expert)

A Royal Decree of 5 January 2021, recently published in the Belgian Official Gazette, regulates the additional specific tasks assigned to the prevention advisor-occupational physician in combating the COVID-19 pandemic in companies and institutions. This primarily involves tasks related to contact tracing, issuing quarantine certificates and testing employees who might be COVID-19 positive.

Specific COVID-19 tasks of the occupational physician

In order to efficiently combat the COVID-19 pandemic in companies and institutions, the prevention advisor-occupational physician (hereafter, ‘occupational physician’) is charged with additional specific tasks (hereafter, ‘specific COVID-19 tasks’).

Tracing high-risk contacts

In the following situations, the occupational physician traces high-risk contacts in the company, taking into account the guidelines of the competent authorities:

  • as soon as he knows that an employee is COVID-19 positive and that this employee was present in the company during the days preceding the test or before displaying symptoms,
  • as soon as he has indications that there is a risk of an outbreak in the company.

Quarantine certificate

The occupational physician issues a quarantine certificate to employees of the company whom he considers to be high-risk contacts; he also informs the employer so that he can ensure that the employees comply with the rules on work permitted during the quarantine.

COVID-19 test

In accordance with the testing strategy determined by the competent authorities, the occupational physician refers certain employees who are physically present at work for a COVID-19 test.

If he considers it more appropriate and provided that the proper personal protective equipment and test materials are used, the occupational physician (or the nursing staff under his responsibility), may carry out the COVID-19 test himself.

These tests may be carried out on the following employees:

  1. employees identified by the occupational physician as high-risk contacts,
  2. employees for whom the occupational physician considers that a test is necessary to control a (threatening) outbreak in the company (in the context of cluster management),
  3. employees who do not normally reside in Belgium and who are only temporarily employed here, and of whom at least one shows symptoms or has tested positive for COVID-19 (in the context of cluster management),
  4. employees who are required to travel abroad as part of their work and for whom a negative COVID-19 test is required to perform their work,
  5. employees in certain specific circumstances when this is decided by the competent authority in agreement with the Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue.

Report to the employer

If, in carrying out these specific COVID-19 tasks, the occupational physician determines that additional measures are necessary to limit the further spread of COVID-19 in the company or to prevent outbreaks, he must report this to the employer. The employer must follow up on this and check whether the precautionary measures previously taken need to be adapted. To this end, he consults urgently and in advance with the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work (CPPW).

Cooperation between employees and employer

The employer and employees must cooperate fully with the occupational physician and provide him with all the information necessary to carry out the specific COVID-19 tasks, in particular by reporting any contamination that may be relevant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

They must also comply with the procedures prescribed by the competent authorities for contact tracing, quarantine and testing.

What about the other tasks of the occupational physician?

For the duration of the health crisis, the occupational physician must give priority to the specific COVID-19 tasks over his other health surveillance tasks and duties.

After consultation with the employer, the occupational physician decides which health surveillance tasks and duties should be carried out as a priority, in what order and for which employees.

Prior health assessments must be carried out in all cases.

To the extent that the application of these specific COVID-19 tasks makes it impossible to timely fulfil certain health surveillance obligations, they will be carried out at a later date (unless this is not applicable).

The employer immediately informs the CPBW and the employees concerned of the measures taken and, in particular, of any adjustments to health surveillance, as well as the reasons for such adjustments.

Video or telephone consultations

During the duration of the health crisis and to reduce the risk of contamination, the occupational physician may decide to carry out certain consultations by video conference or by telephone, unless it is necessary to physically see or examine the employee. Those consultations may include:

  • an examination prior to work resumption,
  • an examination in the context of maternity protection,
  • a spontaneous consultation,
  • a visit prior to work resumption,
  • medical questionnaires as an additional medical act carried out by or under the responsibility of the occupational physician.

Entry into force

The Royal Decree providing for these new provisions enters into force on 21 January 2021. It has been provided for that it will be repealed when the pandemic has diminished and is sufficiently under control.

More information?

Should you have any further questions, please contact your service for prevention and protection at work.

Source: Royal Decree of 5January 2021 concerning the role of the prevention advisor-occupational physician in combating the coronavirus COVID-19, Belgian Official Gazette of 21 January 2021.

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