The coronavirus crisis has put health and safety front and centre for every South African, business and organisation. The good news is that it has forced organisations and individuals to take action. The bad news is that most of these actions amount to nothing more than sanitary theatre. It is disjointed, there are no standard operating procedures, and in many cases limited in keeping people safe from the coronavirus.
Health and safety experts like myself are abhorred at what amounts to well-intentioned amateurs trying to keep the public safe. This is not their fault, they are trying to do their best with limited knowledge and expertise in the area. Sanitising and washing all have their place, but if it is not part of a coherent health and safety system these actions are meaningless.
Let’s look at the entry points of every office, shopping mall, church and factory. Each operates according to their own standard. Some of these places have made it mandatory to sanitise, others make it optional. Some leave their front doors open so there is no touchpoint for the virus to spread, but this is not the case for all the doors on the premises.
A good example are two major international fast-food outlets. One operates as if coronavirus does not exist in its interaction with customers. No masks for its staff, no gloves and cash is handed directly to customers. The other does its best to protect its staff and customers by making the staff wear masks and gloves. Change is given in a plastic container and customers are given the option of sanitising before they drive out. Yet for all the actions by the second fast-food outlet, there is little evidence gloves and masks are really effective.
The two different experiences point to no universal health and safety standard in the hospitality industry. With a health and safety system only being as strong as its weakest point, there are too many weak points hidden to those implementing the system. The consequences of one weak link is too much to bare.
Hospitality is not alone, retail, banking, fuel are all in need of standardisation and coordination. This cannot be passed onto to the cleaner and security guard who are not trained to the standards needed to enforce such a system. There needs to be a person in every organisation who is accountable and responsible. This person has to be given all the recourses and the authority to act decisively, much like a safety officer on a mine.
For those looking to introduce a professional standard in keeping out Covid-19, they have to do a GAP analysis. This means they have to look at all the statutory, legal, ethical, compliance and governance frameworks that govern their organisation. This is followed by an audit to see if the organisation meets the requirements outlined in the GAP analysis. Only then can an action plan be executed to stop the virus. Currently, we have gone straight to action leaving massive flaws in execution. Organisations are not only putting people at risk, but maybe leaving themselves legally liable, if it can be shown they were negligent in stopping the virus on their premises.
Once the virus has dissipated, as it will and normalcy returns in its new form we have a chance to reshape our society with the principals of health and safety at its core.
The health and safety fraternity in heavy industry is grossly underused in the combatting of Covid-19. We have the skills to genuinely make SA safer. We are here for SA, call us and we will do our best to help.
Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr speaking in a different time on a different issue captures the urgency of the moment best when he said:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Makhsozana Kunene is the founder of Mpilenhle Healthcare Consulting.