Questions on coronavirus and occupational safety and health
Biologiset tekijät - Korona
The questions have been divided by subject under the following headings:
If you cannot find the answer here, please call the Telephone Service of the OSH authorities.
Can workers be called for emergency work on the basis of the corona epidemic?
Only if the conditions for emergency work are met. Under the Finnish Working Hours Act, having the staff perform emergency work requires an unexpected event that interferes or seriously threatens to interfere with normal operations or poses a threat to life, health or property. The mere fact that a current epidemic may lead to these consequences is not sufficient to justify emergency work.
The employer shall use the means at their disposal to prepare for the prevailing conditions. If simultaneous sick leaves or other unexpected circumstances threaten to result in the aforementioned consequences, the conditions for emergency work may be fulfilled. The epidemic may limit the employer's ability to prepare and therefore, emergency work may be considered more likely than usual.
If the employer decides to have their employees perform emergency work, this must be reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Division at Regional State Administrative Agency of Southwestern Finland; see contact details here. The report must be accompanied by a statement from the shop steward or other employees' representative.
For guidance on having employees perform emergency work, see Emergency work.
How shall an employer take the coronavirus into account in the workplace risk assessment?
Workplaces shall update their hazard analysis and risk assessment in the light of the coronavirus situation. The analysis and assessment shall be kept up-to-date and reviewed, in particular in the event of changes in circumstances which may affect employees' exposure to the coronavirus. The employer must also keep the risk assessment and the underlying information and, upon request, provide it to the occupational safety and health authority. These obligations are based on the Decree on Biological Agents, the amendment of which entered into force on 15 November 2020.
The risk assessment shall take into account, among other things, the nature of the work, the regional infection situation, the possibility of teleworking, the number and duration of close contacts, and the possibility to use personal protective equipment. The need for travel and the resulting risk of infection must also be taken into account. In updating the risk assessment, the employer must, if necessary, consult the occupational health care. The task of the occupational health care is, among other things, to assess the significance on health on the basis of the risk assessment and to advise the employer on occupational safety and health measures for risk groups. The employer shall, together with occupational health care, assess how an employee who is part of a risk group can work safely.
More information in the press release of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health: The protection of employees against the risk posed by biological agents will be enhanced (in Finnish).
See also the website of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health for guidelines for workplaces to prevent coronavirus infection.
What measures should an employer take on the basis of the risk assessment?
Employers are required to take steps to limit the risk of exposure. In the coronavirus situation, the primary measure to prevent worker exposures is to avoid human contact. The employer shall assess the need for workers to arrive at the workplace from the point of view of the workers' health. One way to avoid contact is to work remotely; if it is impossible, the workplace conditions shall be organized to minimize the risk of exposure. These measures may include enhanced cleaning, hygiene instructions for employees, use of protective screens to prevent drip infections, guidelines for workers to avoid exposure to corona, and advice on situations where exposure or illness is suspected, and various shift arrangements.
If there is a significantly increased risk of infection, personal protective equipment such as breathing protection, gloves, goggles and, if necessary, protective clothing shall be used. Maintenance, cleaning, and replacement of personal protective equipment must be maintained at all times.
Why must an employer maintain a list of employees exposed to the coronavirus at work?
Although COVID-19 no longer classified as generally hazardous communicable disease according to the Communicable Diseases Act, employers must, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, maintain a list of employees exposed at work to biological agents that cause serious hazards or risks to safety or health. This obligation applies to biological agents in hazard classes 3 and 4. Coronavirus belongs to class 3.
The list must be maintained if it can be established that the employee has been in contact at work with a person infected with the coronavirus or exposed to material containing the coronavirus. Mere possibility of exposure at work does not yet constitute an obligation of maintaining a list for the employer. Even so, the employee's vaccination protection does not remove the obligation register when one of exposed.
The amendment of the Biological Agents Decree entered into force on 15 November 2020. According to that, the list must indicate the name and profession of the exposed employee, the industry of the place of employment and the nature of the work carried out, information on the biological agent that caused the exposure to the extent known and a description of how and when the exposure took place.
Can workers claim compensation for a coronavirus infection under the rules on occupational diseases?
Yes, provided that the criteria set out in the Workers’ Compensation Act are satisfied. Occupational safety and health authorities are not competent to determine what counts as an occupational disease or whether the criteria are satisfied. It is up to the worker’s insurance company to decide whether workers’ compensation is payable. The Workers’ Compensation Act defines an occupational disease as a disease that is likely to have developed primarily due to exposures to physical, chemical or biological agents in the workplace or in connection with work.
If a doctor suspects that a patient is suffering from an occupational or work-related disease within the meaning of the Workers’ Compensation Act, they must immediately and notwithstanding any obligation of confidence report the case to their Regional State Administrative Agency’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. An inspector from the Division of Occupational Safety and Health can then contact the patient and ask them for permission to raise the issue with the employer. The aim of inspections carried out on the basis of reported cases of occupational diseases is to ensure that working conditions in the affected workplace have been rectified to prevent similar cases in the future.
How should risk groups be taken into account at work?
The employer must assess whether the employee’s risk of getting infected with coronavirus at work is elevated compared to the rest of the population. The number of close contacts, their duration, the likelihood of a close contact being infected and the possibility of protection must be taken into account in the risk assessment. If necessary, the employer must ask occupational health care to help with the risk assessment to ensure that there is sufficient expertise available.
If the risk of infection is significantly elevated, the employer must take occupational safety and health measures. The primary measure to prevent employee exposure is to avoid social contact or limit the number of contacts. If social contact cannot be avoided due to the nature of the work, it must be assessed if the risk can be reduced sufficiently with protective solutions.
In the assessment of sufficient measures, the employer’s obligation, together with occupational health care, to assess how an employee who is a member of a risk group can work safely is emphasised. If it is not possible to use protective measures, among other things, to reduce the risk at work sufficiently, the employee should be given other duties that do not have a similar risk of infection.
Do employees belonging to a risk group need be paid their wages, if they cannot conduct their work due to the corona epidemic?
It depends on the situation. If an employee’s health is at risk when performing their work duties, the employer must take action to prevent the risk. If the employer can offer the employee other work which will not cause a corresponding risk to their health, this can primarily be done. If the employer is unable to offer the work agreed upon in the employment contract, the employer can agree on other work tasks with the employee. The employee can also be required to participate in training.
If a physician finds that an employee is incapacitated for work, the employee is paid wages as normal for the period of sick leave in accordance with the collective agreement and Employment Contract Act.
If none of these alternatives is applicable for the employee’s situation, the employer’s obligation to pay wages depends on whether the employee or employer is seen to be responsible for the employee’s absence. In this regard, it must be taken into account that equivalent situations have not occurred earlier and, thus, there are also no precedent cases. The final interpretation will not be made until court, in case ambiguous cases proceed to legal steps.
The possibilities for work of those belonging to a risk group should be evaluated in cooperation with occupational health care services. See also the answer to the question “How should risk groups be taken into account at work?”.
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health guidelines for workplaces
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health guidelines for workplaces to prevent coronavirus infection and about safe return to work.