18 May 2020 – The Bulgarian government is undertaking measures for the gradual release of the lockdown and related restrictive measures imposed during the state of emergency in Bulgaria. The aim is to restore the normal functioning of the economy to the extent possible.

Many businesses active in the fields of retail, leisure and hospitality, events management, transport, tourism, etc., which have been severely affected by the imposed measures will have the opportunity to restore their normal functioning, although not at full capacity at the beginning. Other companies will also be able to return personnel to their usual workplaces in offices and production sites.

We list below ten main steps to help employers ensure a smooth and safe return to the workplace:

1. Prepare a back-to-the-workplace action plan – This should be coordinated with the medical specialists from the Occupational Health Service used by the company. Some employers may need to discuss in advance its plan and envisaged measures with the Occupational Health Groups within the enterprise or with the employees directly. Consider the possibility of an immediate ceasing of operations and/or sending employees back home in the event of a new surge of COVID-19 cases.

2. Update your risk assessment with both organisational and technical measures aimed at recognising, eliminating and minimising the risk of spreading COVID-19 at the workplace. Based on the recent guidance of the Bulgarian Labour Inspectorate, it remains the employer's obligation to ensure that none of its employees become infected with coronavirus at the workplace.

3. Prepare detailed health & safety instructions for employees and make sure that all employees returning to the workplace are aware of the required self-hygiene and other precautionary measures. Monitor closely that everyone is following the instructions.

4. Organise a screening of persons entering work premises – The latest regulations require employers to deny access to their premises of persons who show symptoms of respiratory infections (high temperature, cough, etc.). Special focus should be given to the privacy aspects of requesting and processing data concerning the medical status of employees or visitors.

5. Implement conditions and guidance for remote work or flexible annual leave usage – Based on the latest amendments to local legislation, for two more months employers will have the right to unilaterally send employees to work from home or direct them to use part of their annual leave. Special attention should be given to vulnerable groups (such as individuals with chronic diseases, pregnant employees, people above the age of 60, etc.). Extra care should be given to ensure their safe working environment, including by giving such employees the opportunity to work from home.

6. Introduce flexible or reduced working hours, or working on shifts – This will allow you to separate teams, minimise the risk of COVID-19 spread among employees and ensure business continuity. Some of these measures may, however, require amending the internal policies and employee handbooks in cooperation with the works councils at the company.

7. Consider the appropriate measures for the return to work of employees that have been infected by COVID-19 or have been in contact with infected individuals – According to the applicable legislation people who have been in contact with infected individuals should be quarantined for 14 days.

8. Organise and schedule lunch breaks and breaks related to a physiological regime in order to ensure that there is no crowding in common areas.

9. Minimise physical contact between employees at the workplace. According to the latest governmental orders, the distance between employees should be at least 1.5 meters. Employees who can perform their tasks on their own and do not need specialised equipment or machines that cannot be moved may work from separate rooms. Install purpose-made or improvised barriers between employees or ensure additional space between working stations if there are not enough separate rooms for each employee.

10. Ensure compliance with the cleaning and disinfection requirements introduced by the order of the Minister of Health No. RD-01-262 / 14 May 2020 – Employers should organise regular cleaning and disinfection in accordance with the algorithm attached to the order. Depending on the specifics of the work performed, companies must ensure the provision and proper utilisation of personal and collective protective equipment, as well as conducting additional safety instructions.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.