Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Safety guidelines for working during the pandemic in Brazil, a global epicentre of the coronavirus, came under heavy criticism on Monday by labour groups who said the rules amounted to criminal disregard for workers' and public health.

The guidelines, one set for workers in meatpacking plants and another for workers in general, were riddled with errors and inadequate measures, according to a public statement released by 31 labour organisations, including Brazil's biggest trade union confederation.

Coronavirus Brazil safety

Healthcare workers walks in the riverside community Pinheiro, as they visit riverside communities to check on residents during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the municipality of Portel, on Marajo island, Para state, Brazil, on 6th June. PICTURE: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

Brazil has the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 57,000 fatalities, 1.34 million confirmed cases, and one of the highest daily rates of new infections.

The government's response has been erratic, and President Jair Bolsonaro has come under fire for disregarding social distancing measures and promoting remedies such as anti-malarial drugs with little evidence.

The guidelines for workers were issued earlier this month.

"The aforementioned regulations incorporate technical errors and serious omissions," said the opening lines of the labor statement, written by Dr Rene Mendes, one of Brazil's top experts on worker's health.

They defy widely established scientific assumptions, are biased in favour of employers and show "criminal disregard" for the health of workers and of the general population, it said.

Under the guidelines, workers should be kept at least one metre apart on the job and provided with surgical masks or face shields when social distancing is not possible.

The distance of one metre is inadequate, as health experts advise that social distancing should be at least two metres, the labour groups said.

The guidelines also allow for employees who are part of a vulnerable group, such as the elderly, to keep working in unsafe conditions, and they do not require companies to test workers.

The nation's labour prosecutors previously criticised the regulations for meatpacking plants, considered hotbeds for transmission of the virus, as inadequate.

Despite the rising number of deaths and infections, Brazil has been trying to restart its economy, with major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo allowing businesses to reopen.

Labour authorities also have said they worry the government was using the crisis to ease regulations that protect laborers from work in dangerous conditions.

A representative of Brazil's government did not reply to a request for comment.