‘Second wave’ brings new dangers for back-to-work 2021

 DR REBAONE MOSHENYANE

When you return to work in January you are likely to be at high risk of Covid infection on account of your colleagues who have been travelling to hotspots

WARNING: Workplaces should treat early 2021 with caution.
Picture: 123rf/ Andriy Popov

The second wave is now officially underway in South Africa. This means that when you return to work in January after the holidays you are likely to be at high risk of Covid infection on account of your colleagues who have been travelling to Covid hotspots.

Employers who don’t plan for this now are going to have higher staff absenteeism – or worse, infections in the workplace.

Measures that employers should implement include:

Symptom checking

Every staff member returning in January must be checked for Covid symptoms before entering the workplace and infecting others. Those with Covid-19 symptoms must stay home. If they test positive, they need to self-isolate for 10 days from the onset of symptoms.

Employees have complained that the building entry screening process takes too long because security staff are not properly trained and often don’t know what to do when someone presents with symptoms. Employers need to make sure this is addressed so that all employees are properly screened. A network of nurses across the country can also support employers.

Vulnerable employees

Adults with certain diseases and weakened immune systems are at increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19 and employers have a duty to identify and protect them. These can include people suffering from conditions like heart disease, HIV, diabetes, asthma and cancer.

Many employers do not know how many vulnerable employees they have. The new guidelines from the Department of Labour state that companies with more than 50 employees have to identify vulnerable employees.

Employees do not have to indicate their condition, but they do have to let their employer know that they have a chronic illness. Companies are obliged to accommodate them and ensure that they are safe in the workplace or make another plan if the workplace is not ideal.

Virtual GP visit

Symptomatic employees can go to their own doctors, but companies should explore options for virtual consultations. These allow employers to more easily monitor whether the employee has consulted a GP and can be referred for testing if necessary.

Antigen testing

One of the flaws of screening is that many people with Covid are asymptomatic and do not know that they are infected. We recommend an antigen test that detects Covid-19 infection for high-risk staff members. Results are available within one hour.

Psychological issues

The pandemic has exacerbated many psychosocial issues due to stress, financial stress and grief. Employees should have access to a 24/7 Covid-19 support line manned by trained counsellors and psychologists. It is important that employees have a confidential outlet for their stress and fears.

Covid testing

The GP will also decide whether the employee should be tested for Covid. We recommend a rapid test which checks for Covid-19 antibodies to see whether the person has been exposed to the virus. Results are available within 24 hours. Once tested, the staff member must share the result with their HR department or line manager, and follow the doctor’s orders.

Track and trace

The contacts of infected employees must be traced to avoid further spread of the disease. Those contacts exhibiting symptoms should go to a GP while those who are asymptomatic should self-quarantine for 10 days and inform their doctor if they develop symptoms. This is easily done via the Covid support line, while tracking and tracing and follow-up calls are done with employees to track if they begin to show symptoms. It can also help with any anxiety they may be experiencing.

2021 risk assessment

Risk assessments determine the standards for social distancing and sanitiser availability so the risk of Covid-19 is reduced in the workplace. Employers should do a new risk assessment in January after re-opening offices that were closed during December.

– Dr Rebaone Moshenyane is an occupational medical practitioner at Workforce Holdings

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