Here are answers to the most pressing questions from our recent COVID-19 Health and Safety regulations webinar, looking at how South African businesses with field sales teams can best operate during lockdown periods.
The questions below were answered by South Africa’s top occupational health specialists, Drs Frank Fox and Stefanus Snyman. Please note, at the time of the webinar, South Africa was still at Lockdown Level 4.
Is this virus really as deadly as it’s claimed to be, or is it just media hype?
This is not a straightforward question to answer. Different countries have experienced different death rates and the death rate is different in different age groups. The presence or absence of other illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, immune disorders, heart disease, kidney disease (to mention just a few) drastically increases the chance of severe disease occurring. The problem is that nobody has any immunity to this virus and we all have to rely on our innate immune system (which is affected by age, diet, environmental factors, pre-existing illness and genetics). Figures emerging from the global epidemic suggest that this virus is about twice as deadly as the seasonal flu virus.
Is wearing a mask helpful or counterproductive?
Masks are worn to protect others from you. They capture the droplets you transmit when coughing, sneezing, talking, or even breathing heavily. It is a form of physical distancing. In high exposure situations such as health care, special masks (e.g., N95 masks) are worn to protect the wearer.
The motto is: I wear a mask to protect you, you wear a mask to protect me.
Please view the following documents for more:
Face masks against COVID19: An Evidence Review
Face masks for the public during the COVID19 crisis
The Disaster Management Act requires employers to take special measures for employees over 60 and/or with co-morbidities. What special measures can we put in place? And if we cannot put these special measures in place, what do we do with these staff?
The risk-based approach to reopening the workplace leaves space to allow workers with medium and high risk to return to work earlier. In some instances, a person may be crucial for the operations of the company. In other instances, the person has to choose between taking the risk or having no food on the table.
The important principle for these people, is that that they must clearly understand the risk of returning to work. It must be explained to them. If they are not comfortable taking the risk, or if the employer cannot provide the extra protective measures, they should work from home and shouldn’t be discriminated against.
If the person is willing to take the shared risk, the employee could sign a consent form indicating that they understand the risk and will take precautionary measures to limit the risk of exposure.
Over and above the normal preventative measures, additional measures could include:
- Additional distancing (more than 2m) in production line
- Working in a separate room
- Adapted shifts to shorter hours
- Only come to the office when it is really needed
- Change working hours so as not to arrive/depart with the crowd at normal peak hours
- Less interaction with other employees or clients
- Additional monitoring of symptoms
- Not to attend meetings
- Not to allow anybody in their office, but to talk in the corridor or other open spaces
Have a look at Skynamo’s Daily Clock-In Screening Form built into the app.
What are the regulations pertaining to pregnant women and returning to work?
Pregnancy is mentioned as a condition which may predispose a woman to getting more illness. However, there is no evidence to suggest that a normal pregnancy puts you at higher risk. Pregnant women, without any complications can return to work, but it is prudent to ask women in the third trimester to work from home, or perhaps take early maternity leave.
Who is responsible for an infected person’s testing and re-testing costs?
If you are a person under investigation (PUI), you can be tested for free in the state system, or your medical aid may pay for the test. Unfortunately, there is often a delay of up to 10 days to get the results in the public sector. If you are willing to pay (± R850), have a medical aid or if your employer is willing to pay, you can get tested at a private pathology laboratory.
If your case is accepted as an occupational disease (i.e., if you can prove that you contracted the disease at work), the Compensation Commissioner will refund you for costs incurred. The employer is not legally obliged to pay for these tests.
Regarding being re-tested to determine if you’ve turned negative since your previous test, it is still (as of 7 May 2020) unclear if the government service will perform the test and at whose expense it will be done.
What’s necessary to prove you contracted the virus during work-related activities?
You need to show that you had significant contact with an infected person during the course of your working day and that you developed symptoms 2-14 days after that specific contact. Significant contact means at least 15 minutes of fairly close contact (or contact with surfaces close to that person in the working environment). This is going to depend a lot on reporting and the contact tracing that goes with an individual case of infection. Unfortunately, this may not be as easy as it sounds. It is really important to keep a good diary of daily activities. More advice may be available from the Compensation Commissioner’s website.
At businesses where field sales professionals are required to undergo breathalyser tests, how should they be conducted?
It’s important to sanitise breathalysers before every use. But they have to be wiped with non-alcohol wipes to ensure the test is valid at all. Most employers no longer require this from field sales professionals to blow nowadays. Should a customer you’re visiting require a test, the important thing is to ensure that the person holding the device has sanitised it, is an arm’s length away from you and is wearing a face mask. Do not touch the device and try not to inhale near the device. Another option is to blow through a straw, while all the precautions around cleaning the device still apply.
Regulations state employers are responsible for supply, cleaning and ironing of employees masks. This is a contentious point, as many of our employees want to wash and keep their own masks sanitised and clean. As an employer, what can I do that is practically implementable and satisfactory for the regulations? The masks we purchased have a nylon polymer that will melt when ironed ‒ is a tumble dryer acceptable?
It is the employer’s responsibility to make sure that masks are clean. They can subcontract this to a laundry or to each employee to do it according to standards. If masks cannot be ironed, they can be tumble dried at 60°C, or hung in the sun to dry. Employees should receive these instructions in writing, and they should agree to them.
What is your view on aircons? Is there substantiated evidence providing for COVID-19 being transmitted via aircon systems? ASHRAE has stated that air conditioning can help prevent coronavirus spread.
It’s all about airflow. Recirculation of air in a fixed way does increase the risk of spreading the virus. Some really great shoe-leather epidemiology demonstrated clearly the effect of a single asymptomatic carrier in a restaurant environment. The infected person (A1) sat at a table and had dinner with nine friends. Dinner took about one to 1.5 hours. During this meal, the asymptomatic carrier released low-levels of virus into the air from their breathing. Airflow (from the restaurant’s various airflow vents) was from right to left. Approximately 50% of the people at the infected person’s table became sick over the next seven days. Seventy-five percent of the people on the adjacent downwind table became infected. And even two of the seven people on the upwind table were infected (believed to happen by turbulent airflow). No one at tables E or F became infected: they were out of the main airflow from the air conditioner on the right to the exhaust fan on the left of the room. (Ref: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/7/20-0764_article)
Some of us have been told to wear gloves when we go into customer premises. Wouldn’t gloves help to transmit the virus?
There is no reason to wear gloves. The virus cannot be transmitted through the skin. Gloves can give a false sense of security. The important thing is not to touch your face, eyes or mask before you’ve washed/sanitised your hands. You still have to do this, even if you are wearing gloves.
Our field sales team visits medical practices and hospitals. What are the risk factors involved and should they be returning to duty anytime soon, considering they also visit our head office, where there’s a staff complement of more than 100?
The doctors and hospitals you visit are likely to have expectations with regard to their own safety and will be treating all visitors as potentially infected. They will most likely ask you to complete a short symptoms questionnaire before entering, check your temperature and will require a mask and hand sanitisation. Hospitals and consulting rooms should have separate areas where patients who are suspected of being infected are seen. You should not be entering these areas (certainly not without full PPE and precautions). Your own offices should take similar precautions of temperature and symptom screening, and sanitisation. It would be a good idea if visits to the office are scheduled on days when you are not visiting clients, so that you do not carry the exposure of an entire work day to the office.
In the automotive industry, staff members may need to move vehicles between departments or inside our workshops, so would these vehicles need to be sanitised, as well as the staff members?
The vehicle should be sanitised before another person uses it. Staff members should apply the normal practices of hand washing and wearing a mask. No additional measures are necessary (or likely to be effective).
Need more information?
Go to our full Q&A page where a few more answers to webinar participants’ questions appear. Read more…
Also read: A daily safety plan for field sales reps in the COVID-19 economy
*Disclaimer: The webinar is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal, medical or professional advice. (Read more)