As South Africa battles to contain the second wave of the Coronavirus that exploded during the holiday season, millions will be preparing themselves to go back to work during this most uncertain and dangerous of times.
They will be balancing ensuring their own safety and health, and, thus, that of their co-workers and loved ones, with the need to earn an income and provide for their dependants and stimulate an economy that has been hit hard by the pandemic. But that balancing act need not be a risky high-wire circus walk, but a cautious, sensible and strict implementation of simple behaviours that protect and prevent the spread of the virus.
The Solidarity Fund’s #UnityinAction campaign seeks to instil these basic behavioural changes in South Africans: wear a mask and do so properly, social distance and stay at home as much as you can in line with the new lockdown regulations.
Many South African companies moved to a work-from-home solution shortly before the first lockdown at the end of March. Call centers staffed by hundreds of personnel were enabled to do their jobs remotely, offering the same level of service. Indeed, one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it has accelerated the digital transformation of South Africa and shown that it has the capability to be a player in the technology space.
But, there are as many, if not more workers, businesses, industries and occupations who are not able to work remotely. For millions, travelling to and working in a physical setting is a necessary and daily way of life. It exposes them to an increased possibility of infection through interaction with others at the workplace or on public transport.
How can South Africans best protect themselves as they start the 2021 work year? They should start with the mindset that all are at risk, no matter their occupation or seniority in the company. Safety and our health is a common goal and is the responsibility of all. That must be basic mindset as they return to work.
Make the key behaviours part of your daily work habit. Keep wearing a mask properly, keep social distancing and keep making hygiene practices a constant routine.
Travelling to work on public transport opens employees to increased levels of exposure. During the #UnityinAction campaign, the Solidarity Fund’s agents on the ground have found that taxi owners and marshals are very aware of the protocols and have allowed engagement with drivers and commuters. There must be temperature checks before boarding, ensuring masks are worn and the provision of sanitiser. Keeping the windows open allows for greater ventilation and fresh air.
The Government gazetted detailed safety measures in the workplace for Coronavirus in June last year. These outline the responsibilities of employers towards the health and safety of their staff. Employers are required to provide appropriate masks free-of-charge for each employee when required as well as facilities for staff to be able to regularly and consistently wash their hands to ensure high sanitary standards are adhered to. Sufficient free sanitiser must be proved for the number of staff on duty.
Other safety measures in the regulations include limiting interactions between employees, clients and customers to a minimum, limiting capacity in common spaces like elevators and installing sneeze shields. Companies are encouraged to implement staggered shifts for staff so they 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.
As well as symptom checking, disinfecting surfaces and reporting infections to the medical authorities, employers must instruct employees to stay at home if they feel ill or show any coronavirus symptoms. These include, according to regulations, “a cough, sore throat, shortness of breath (or difficulty in breathing), or loss of smell or taste… (and they must determine) whether they suffer from any of the following additional symptoms: fever, body aches, redness of eyes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue, weakness or tiredness.”
Should the employee show any of these, they must placed on paid sick leave and quarantine for 14 days. Employees are protected by the law during this time and cannot be penalised.
With all these regulations, the workspace is the perhaps the safest place at work as protocols can be strictly adhered to, whether that be at a desk, at a petrol pump or behind a till. As South Africa saw during the rapid increase of infections over the holiday season, it is when people relax that is the riskiest time. As President Cyril Ramaphosa said four days after Christmas, when we let down our guard, we pay the price for that.
During breaks and in rest areas are when people should be most vigilant during the working day. Employers should providing rest areas that are social distance compliant, each employee should have their own reusable water bottles and coffee cups. Sanitise after touching common utensils, like the kettle.
Clear, effective and swift communication is a strong tool in creating and maintaining awareness of this invisible virus Create visual reminders, whether they be posters or social distance stickers on the floor. Employers should speak to their staff regularly, checking on their mental health as well as their physical wellbeing. Communication must be consistent and honest.
As the festive season has shown, complacency is the enemy. South Africans cannot let their guard down at work as they did on holiday. Staying true to the vital behaviours will keep South Africans safe and healthy. Wear a mask properly, social distance and stay at home if you can.