By Jenina P. Ibañez, Reporter

EMPLOYEES’ return to work can prove risky if workplace safety guidelines drafted to protect them from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are not refined for specific industries, a health care professional said.

Dr. Carolina L. Tapia, head of research of preventive and community medicine at St. Luke’s College of Medicine, said in an online interview on Friday that the guidelines released by the Trade and Labor departments are “generic.”

“The risks of both acquiring and transmitting disease are different from business to business, industry to industry,” she said.

She said that the current guidelines can be built on for industry-specific rules, as sectors like healthcare and manufacturing can be at risk if left without specific health safety requirements.

More workers are returning to their regular workplaces after the lockdown was relaxed, with some areas already allowing at least 50% capacity for all industries. The guidelines released by the government in April include face mask and sanitation requirements, as well as health assessments, alternative work “rotation” work arrangements, and workplace layouts that allow for physical distancing.

Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez in a mobile message on Monday said that the guidelines are the minimum measures, adding that the department has issued guidelines for barbershops, salons, and dine-in restaurants.

“What we issued are the basic guidelines, at the minimum, and each industry sector or company are encouraged to apply even more stricter measures where possible and reasonable, particular to their industry.”

Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III said in a mobile message that he encourages companies to adopt stricter measures.

Ms. Tapia said businesses should be required — not just encouraged — to develop a return to work plan, including assessments and measures to reduce health risks. The Labor department, she added, should release a risk assessment checklist for COVID-19.

In terms of personal protective equipment, Ms. Tapia said that bunny suits, given the global scarcity, should be reserved for healthcare settings.

“Other countries say, unless you are in a clinical setting, please do not make employees use bunny suits kasi (because) there is a worldwide scarcity,” she said.

Kasi wala tayong talagang guidelines. Sinabi lang mag-PPE… dapat business-directed guidelines.”

(Because we don’t exactly have guidelines. What was said was to use PPE. There must be business-directed guidelines.)

She said that everyone should use face masks, especially workers that use public transport.

Kung 100% compliant lang tayo sa masks, sa physical distancing, sa hand hygiene, we won’t even need dami-daming test kits.”

(If we’re 100% compliant on masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene, we won’t even need many test kits.)

The World Health Organization had recently changed its advice on face masks, saying that they should always be worn in public.

At the level of individual responsibility, Ms. Tapia said that workers should plan their trips to avoid too much physical contact. But she said the government should have used the lockdown to develop plans to allow for bike lanes and widened sidewalks.

“The lockdown should have afforded our government — ang lockdown is to buy time for us to do the things we need to do. Dapat ginamit ‘yung lockdown (The lockdown should have been used) to repair public transport system.”

She also emphasized the need to improve contact tracing, noting that rapid tests used by companies have high false positive and false negative rates.

The private sector has been purchasing rapid tests for their employees, with Project ARK already acquiring more than 1.2 million of these.