By Wendy Tlou – Exec Head: Humanitarian Response & Behaviour Change Pillars at The Solidarity Fund
If, as the saying goes, the only thing certain in life is uncertainty, then it is understandable that with South Africans back at work while the second, deadly wave of Coronavirus is tearing through the land, they will have vital questions that need answers to take away that uncertainty.
Knowledge is power during a pandemic. Knowing how to stay safe from the virus, to protect the health of yourself and others is not only your duty and responsibility to your work colleagues, but it imparts the power to ensure a sense of normalcy and comfort in these uncertain, unprecedented and most frightening of times.
The most common questions those who have to go to a physical place of work or interact frequently with work colleagues and customers include:
Rules around the use and provision of personal protection equipment;
Rules around social distancing at the work place;
Protocol with regard to sanitisation;
What the responsibilities of employers are;
How to recognise symptoms in themselves and others;
What to do if they are infected;
What their rights with regards to continued employment if they catch the virus;
How to return to work after recovering.
The best place to start is with the simple, most basic and effective behaviours. These are not new and we have been practicing them for some time now. They have been part of the message from health authorities and government since the virus was first detected in South Africa, and are the core message of the Solidarity Fund’s #UnityinAction campaign, which aims to instil these basic behavioural changes in South Africans. Wear a mask and do so properly over your mouth and nose, social distance and stay at home as much as you can in line with the current lockdown regulations.
Consistent hand washing and the use of sanitiser is a necessary weapon in the physical work place as well as for the millions who rely on public transport to get to and from work. The virus has been shown to spread more via the respiratory system, but touching infected surfaces and then your face, can lead to infection. There is no such thing as being too safe.
To start, how can workers stay safe on public transport? The Solidarity Fund’s #UnityinAction campaign activists at taxi ranks report that owners and marshals are aware of protocols. Temperatures and symptom checks must be made before boarding, masks must be worn by drivers and commuters, sanitiser must be provided and windows open for ventilation.
What responsibilities do employers have towards the health and safety of employees?
The Government has gazetted detailed safety measures for the workplace for Coronavirus, which include providing suitable masks free-of-charge, facilities to regularly and consistently sanitise hands and sufficient free sanitiser.
They must limit interactions between employees, clients and customers, implement staggered shifts so staff are not all in the workspace at the same time, have different entry points for different sets of employees and restrict the areas they are allowed to access.
What if an employee shows symptoms or gets infected? Employers must check for symptoms, disinfect surfaces and report infections to the medical authorities. Employees testing positive, displaying symptoms or feeling ill must quarantine at home on sick leave for 14 days. Employees are protected by the law during this time and cannot be penalised.
What happens if a worker tests positive, spends 14 days in isolation and returns to work? The National Institute for Communicable Diseases recommends the worker wears a surgical mask for 21 days and practises social distancing and optimal respiratory and hand hygiene.
Forewarned is forearmed for everyone who is back at work. The second wave of the Coronavirus has seen record numbers of infections and deaths, exacerbated by South Africans letting their guard down during the holiday period and straying from the behaviours and protocols that have become a part of our lives. Staying true to those, making them a natural part of our lives, will ensure that fewer workers become infected and remain a contributor to the country’s economic revival, and, most importantly, lessen the strain on the health system. Wear a mask properly, social distance, stay at home if you can and stick to safe hygiene practices.