If you read last week’s blog you will know that today’s post was supposed to be the first in a series of 12 entitled ‘8 Workplace Themes and their implications for Facilities Management.’ However, with the advent of the COVID-19 having now been confirmed in South Africa and the Presidential address on Sunday, I felt there was a need to deal with this issue and its effect on the Workplace and its users.
I want to use this article to educate Facility and Workplace managers in South Africa. Our FM Teams are on the frontline of keeping our Workplaces safe and they need to know about what to do to prevent and contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus and to protect all persons entering their facilities.
Coronavirus or more specifically SARS-CoV-2, which is the name of the virus that causes the disease COVID-19 has arrived in South Africa. At the time of writing this article we currently have 150 confirmed cases with no deaths recorded as yet. Statistically, there are likely many more actual cases of infection and these are likel to increase exponentially to unprecedented levels.
As we have seen from other countries it can be assumed that it is not a case of “if the virus spreads, but when”. The disease is potentially lethal and those most at risk are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, hypertension and a suppressed immune system.
In ‘A ticking time bomb’: Scientists worry about coronavirus spread in Africa. It is made clear that Africa and South Africa have many special and potentially aggravating circumstances that amplify how the virus could spread and its effect on our people, commerce and the health system. It is likely to be so much worse than what has been seen in Europe.
How COVID-19 Spreads
The virus can be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. A single cough can produce up to 3,000 droplets. These droplets can either be inhaled directly from those people in close proximity (1-2m) of the infected person.
However, these particles can also land on clothing and surfaces around them. So, anyone could be contaminated by subsequently touching these surfaces.
It is important to note that studies done on other coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS, found they can survive on metal, glass and plastic for as long as nine days unless they are properly disinfected. Some can even hang around for up to 28 days in low temperatures.
COVID-19 and the Workplace
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is closely linked to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus which we saw in South Africa in 2002/3. Unfortunately, in SA we were slow to react to SARS as it was on the decline by the time it reached our shores. We must not make the same mistake again as it is highly unlikely that a viable vaccine will be produced until next year and so an outbreak is likely to be an extended event.
One of the recommended strategies for preventing the transmission of the disease is what has been referred to as ‘social distancing’. Social distancing is an effort to isolate both infected individuals from the wider community but also those not infected to distance themselves from the possibility of coming into contact with infected individuals.
The President has said that companies that can allow employees to work from home, should make provision for this. However, we need to understand that in South Africa the cost of data and the lack of penetration of adequate IT capability into the domestic arena mean that this is not possible on the scale it is in the UK for instance.
In South Africa, we also need to take into account the reliance of our economy on an employee’s physical presence in the Workplace. Our lack of social and transport infrastructure and the informal economy mean that many workers need to be physically present and often in contact with the general public to earn a stipend.
Four Essential Workplace Strategies to Combat COVID-19
Facilities and Workplace management team are the guardians of the Workplace and they will be at the forefront of an organisational response to the virus.
1. Lead the response
Someone needs to take charge of your pandemic response plan and become the designated and single source of information.
Perhaps naturally anything involving your employees is best handled by the head of human resources. But, it is the FM Team that is responsible for the physical infrastructure and its ability to play its part in containing the virus and protecting all inhabitants and visitors to the facility.
You will undoubtedly need to dust off the Disaster Recovery Plan, update it and enact it as soon as possible (see Item 3)
2. Set communication protocols
How will your company share news with both employees, customers and other stakeholders and how often?
Communication protocols will let your stakeholders know how and when you plan to update them or on any changes that may arise such as new ways of working Health and safety information as well as the potential closure of facilities.
All communication should be straightforward and direct. Let your employees and potential visitors know how and when they can learn about dates and how any urgent messages can be relayed.
There is no shortage of information in the public domain. be careful much of it is ill-informed and ill-considered. Social media, of course, adds to the potential for the spread of fake news. Please ensure that your information dissemination is based on credible and verifiable sources.
3. Ensure a safe work environment
Let me not underplay this… The safety of the organisation’s employees and visitors to the facility is your responsibility. In fact, it should be your highest priority.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge for the facilities team. All of these measures need to be enacted both in your place of work as well as all workplaces under your management.
The facilities manager must understand the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS) and must align their activities with the act to ensure compliance with all legislation even in these times of National Disaster.
a. Develop an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan
Plans should consider and address the level(s) of risk associated with various worksites and the tasks workers perform at those sites. Such considerations may include;
- Where, how, and to what sources of COVID-19 might workers be exposed, including:
- The general public, customers, and coworkers; and
- Sick individuals or those at particularly high risk of infection
- Non-occupational risk factors at home and in community settings.
- Workers’ individual risk factors (e.g., older age; the presence of underlying chronic medical conditions).
- Controls necessary to address those risks.
b. Prepare to Implement Basic Infection Prevention Measures
For most employers, protecting workers will depend on emphasising basic infection prevention measures. As appropriate, all employers should implement good hygiene and infection control practices, including:
- Promote frequent and thorough hand washing, including by providing workers, customers, and worksite visitors with a place to wash their hands. If soap and running water are not immediately available, provide alcohol-based hand rub containing at least 60% alcohol.
- Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick.
- Even if employees are not sick and they can work from home they should be mandated to do so. Consider deactivating building passes or security keys are one of the ways to enforce this.
- Encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes.
- Provide customers and the public with tissues and bio-hazard trash receptacles.
- Employers should explore whether they can establish practices, such as flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), to increase the physical distance among employees and between employees and others
- Recommend the use of social distancing strategies at all times.
- Discourage workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible.
- Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, equipment, and other elements of the work environment.
- When choosing cleaning chemicals, employers should consult information on approved disinfectant labels and follow manufacturer’s instructions for use of all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time, PPE).
c. Develop a Plan for Prompt Identification and Isolation of Sick People
- Prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals is a critical step in protecting workers, customers, visitors, and others at the workplace.
- Employers should inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure.
- Employers should develop policies and procedures for employees to report when they are sick or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
- Where appropriate, employers should develop policies and procedures for immediately isolating people who have signs and/or symptoms of COVID-19, and train workers to implement them.
- Move potentially infectious people to a location away from workers, customers, and other visitors. There is no need to have specific isolation rooms, designated areas with closable doors and suitable signage may serve as isolation rooms until potentially sick people can be removed from the worksite.
- Take steps to limit the spread of the respiratory secretions of a person who may have COVID-19. Provide a face mask, if feasible and available, and insist the person wear it.
- If possible, isolate people suspected of having COVID-19 separately from those with confirmed cases of the virus to prevent further transmission.
- Restrict the number of personnel entering isolation areas.
- Protect workers in close contact with a sick person or who have prolonged/repeated contact with such persons by using additional engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and PPE listed in (e) below.
d. Develop, Implement, and Communicate about Workplace Flexibilities and Protections
Communication in the workplace both virtually and with posters stickers and leaflets is essential.
- In South Africa, we need to communicate in a language that ensures all your employees can understand.
- Where written communication is adopted this must use a channel that ensures the widest distribution possible and the use of pictograms for those employees that cannot read.
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home.
- Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
- Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
- Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work.
- Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.
- Recognise that workers with ill family members may need to stay home to care for them.
- Be aware of workers’ concerns about pay, leave, safety, health, and other issues that may arise during infectious disease outbreaks.
- Provide adequate, usable, and appropriate training, education, and informational material about business-essential job functions and worker health and safety,
Informed workers who feel safe at work are less likely to be unnecessarily absent.
e. Implement Workplace Controls
Occupational safety and health professionals use a framework called the “hierarchy of controls” to select ways of controlling workplace hazards. In other words, the best way to control a hazard is to systematically remove it from the workplace, rather than relying on workers to reduce their exposure.
During a COVID-19 outbreak, when it may not be possible to eliminate the hazard, the most effective protection measures are (listed from most effective to least effective): engineering controls, administrative controls, safe work practices (a type of administrative control), and PPE.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of control measure when considering the ease of implementation, effectiveness, and cost. In most cases, a combination of control measures will be necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19.
Engineering controls involve isolating employees from work-related hazards. In workplaces where they are appropriate, these types of controls reduce exposure to hazards without relying on worker behaviour and can be the most cost-effective solution to implement. Whilst it may be too late to install many of these controls now we need to understand that the coronavirus and any derivatives are here to stay.
Engineering controls for COVID-19 include:
- Installing high-efficiency air filters.
- Increasing ventilation rates in the work environment.
- Installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards.
- Installing a drive-through window for customer service.
- Specialized negative pressure ventilation in some settings, such as for aerosol-generating procedures (e.g., airborne infection isolation rooms in healthcare settings and specialised autopsy suites in mortuary settings).
Administrative controls require action by the worker or employer. Typically, administrative controls are changes in work policy or procedures to reduce or minimise exposure to a hazard.
Examples of administrative controls for COVID-19 include:
- Encouraging sick workers to stay at home.
- Minimising contact among workers, clients, and customers by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications and implementing telework if feasible.
- Establishing alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees in a facility at a given time, allowing them to maintain distance from one another while maintaining a full onsite work week.
- Discontinuing nonessential travel to locations with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Developing emergency communications plans, including a forum for answering workers’ concerns and internet-based communications, if feasible.
- Providing workers with up-to-date education and training on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviours (e.g., cough etiquette and care of PPE).
- Training workers who need to use protecting clothing and equipment how to put it on, use/wear it, and take it off correctly, including in the context of their current and potential duties. Training material should be easy to understand and available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all workers.
Safe Work Practices
Safe work practices are types of administrative controls that include procedures for safe and proper work used to reduce the duration, frequency, or intensity of exposure to a hazard. Examples of safe work practices for COVID-19 include:
- Providing resources and a work environment that promotes personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60 per cent alcohol, disinfectants, and disposable towels for workers to clean their work surfaces.
- Requiring regular hand washing or the using of alcohol-based hand rubs. Workers should always wash hands when they are visibly soiled and after removing any PPE.
- Post hand-washing and good hygiene signs in restrooms.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
While engineering and administrative controls are considered more effective in minimising exposure to COVID-19, PPE may also be needed to prevent certain exposures. While correctly using PPE can help prevent some exposures, it should not take the place of other prevention strategies.
Examples of PPE include: gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks, and respiratory protection, when appropriate.
During an outbreak of an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, recommendations for PPE specific to occupations or job tasks may change depending on geographic location, updated risk assessments for workers, and information on PPE effectiveness in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
All types of PPE must be:
- Selected based upon the hazard to the worker.
- Properly fitted and periodically refitted, as applicable (e.g., respirators).
- Consistently and properly worn when required.
- Regularly inspected, maintained, and replaced, as necessary.
- Properly removed, cleaned, and stored or disposed of, as applicable, to avoid contamination of self, others, or the environment.
Employers are obligated to provide their workers with PPE needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs. The types of PPE required during a COVID-19 outbreak will be based on the risk of being infected while working and job tasks that may lead to exposure.
4. Be Ready for Business Impact
Consumer demand for items related to infection prevention is likely to increase significantly. We have already seen demand for consumer goods associated with protracted periods of isolation in the shops. Panic buying has taken hold in some retail outlets who have recorded shortages of goods such as hand sanitiser, toilet rolls and basic foodstuffs.
In addition to this consumer demand for non-essential goods may well decline in the short term. Consumer buying patterns in the United States have changed significantly with Amazon having to employ an extra 100,000 staff to cope with the demand for online purchases.
Pick n Pay has launched a special pensioners shopping hour at off-peak times to reduce contact with other people. Grocery chains are also reporting increases in-home delivery. The fast-food outlets are reporting large increases in drive-through services in order to reduce person-to-person contact.
Supply chain disruption is already upon us with Nissan reporting shortages in just-in-time deliveries to their factories resulting in the potential layoff of workers.
Be prepared for changes in demand for your products and services. In periods of high anxiety, it is expected that there will be changes in customer behaviour, and your ability to exhibit high levels of EQ and service excellence will be tested.
Manufacturers of cleaning and sanitising products are experiencing periods of unusually high demand and whilst acceleration of production has been implemented you can expect that there will be shortages that will need to be explained to your end-users.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Rest assured you cannot over-communicate with your customers about facility closings, product shortages or changes in means of doing business let them know how you’ve adapted to continue to meet their needs.
Importantly, employers and their facilities teams should keep in mind that South Africa is early in the process of understanding and combating COVID-19. All the data shows that the earlier action is taken the flatter the curve of infection which will undoubtedly save lives.
The situation is rapidly evolving and employers will need to pay close attention to daily developments. But be assured of one thing there is no time to wait this is no longer an epidemic it is a pandemic and if it hasn’t already affected your business and facilities it is going to do so.
By following these guidelines you can increase your organisation’s resilience in the face of his global emergency.
Please stay safe in this VUCA world, COVID-19 will come and go but just as after 9/11, life will never be quite the same again. As far as Workplace is concerned this may well have accelerated the work from home ideology but with that brings a whole new set of challenges that we need to be ready to face.