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A cautious return to the workplace

An example of social distancing in office spaces. Picture:

An example of social distancing in office spaces. Picture:

Published May 19, 2020


LIFESTYLE - A​S a number of businesses reopen after the lockdown regulations were eased, an expert says employers need to be more cognisant of their workers safety and support their supply chain.

Professor Rajen Naidoo, an occupational medicine specialist, said companies should assess the risks before employees arrive at work.

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He said employers needed to keep in mind that up to 50% of people were likely to be asymptomatic - showing no symptoms of the virus.

Naidoo said if employers assumed everyone was Covid-19-positive, the risk would be reduced as there would already be measures in place.

He pointed to a number of basic areas that need to be covered:

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First-level intervention

* Social distancing must be enforced, even in the boardroom and the cafeteria.

* There must be washbasins, with soap and hand sanitiser.  

* Employers should provide at least two free cloth masks per employee and they must be trained on how to use and clean the masks.

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* If staff work in a service area where they interact directly with the public, there should be a physical barrier, like a screen, between them and others. Alternatively, staff should wear masks and face shields.

Second-level intervention

* When employees (as well as visitors, contractors and subcontractors) arrive at work, have a screening system in place.

* This involves going through a standard questionnaire, consisting of the four key questions that are used by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. This will determine whether a person is likely to need further testing.

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* These questions are: Are you coughing? Do you have a sore throat? Do you have a fever? Do you have shortness of breath?

If a person responds yes to any of these questions, they must immediately be issued a mask, isolated and sent for testing.

* Temperature testing is not an essential requirement. We advise employers not to make large-scale investments in infrared thermometers and scanners.

If a worker says, “I have a fever”, that is a far better indicator than somebody trying to use a sophisticated device that they may not have the technical expertise to use properly.

Also, if such machines and tools are not calibrated properly, it can present an issue with the reading.

What tends to happen is that everybody focuses on the temperature, and not the symptoms.

About 50% of people are asymptomatic. It doesn’t matter if one person’s temperature is normal; the person may have a sore throat.

If we are so focused on temperature, we disregard a key symptom of a sore throat and let the person through.

Then, two days later, that worker tests positive because we did not act on the sore throat.

Rather, use the questionnaire and let health officials assess individuals if they need to go for an assessment, based on the questionnaire.

If somebody screens positive

*Immediately determine which of the employees would have likely been in contact with the person who screened positive. Remember, at least two days prior to them becoming symptomatic, they were already transmitting the virus, so you need to assess who else may need to be quarantined and tested.

*You can’t assume that if one person screens positive, others in the company are positive. There has to be a rational approach to assessing the level of risk.

Naidoo, who is also the head of the Department of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), said the approach that South Africa was taking was: if you can work from home, then you should be doing so.

“If you have to be in the workplace, then what is the minimum number of workers needed in that environment?

“It’s a good idea to have the minimum amount of people at the office and the rest at home, so that if one person tests positive and we have to remove five workers because they were in close contact with that person, we still have staff at home as back-up.”

A wider scope of responsibility

Naidoo encouraged companies to think broadly.

“You’ve got to think of how do you protect your employees in the broader environment.

“For example, some companies in essential services have paid minibus taxis for a full load of passengers so that two or three of their workers can travel safely in the vehicle.

“The employer must think: If the company makes a turnover of R1million a day, would you rather pay a little extra for your employees to travel safely or close a factory should the workers test positive?”

He added that companies needed to also support their supply chain.

Naidoo explained that if a motor manufacturer, for example, took care of its staff with health cover or resources but was unable to do the same for, perhaps, the supplier of its car seats - the car-seat manufacturer could shut down and the supply chain would be affected.

“Unless people start to change the way they think, in a much broader context, then you are wasting your time.

“You can do everything to protect your workers, but if you don’t help the supply chain businesses, you will not last long.”


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