HR Indaba hears how health and safety has evolved during Covid-19

HR experts discussed the impact of Covid-19 on both health and safety and work culture.

Speaking at the HR Indaba Impact Session titled Health and Safety on Steroids – Protecting Employees During a Pandemic, Elanie Kruger, group CHRO at Tsebo Solutions, said that, during the first lockdown, clear guidelines had not yet come through, so they had to create solutions in-house.

The company employs about 26,000 people and she explains: “Primarily the approach was to protect lives and safeguard livelihoods. Ninety-five percent of our staff, most of whom are minimum wage workers, operate from the client site. We knew that job security was paramount for them and we had to address this, as it would have a profound effect on their long-term health and well-being.”

Candice Watson, group human capital executive at AECI, says as soon lockdown was declared, a multi-disciplinary team was convened to lead through the crisis. The collective was led by the group executive committee with input from experts with the relevant health and safety expertise. They also had someone senior leading stakeholder relations, government liaison and engagement with the Department of Labour.

With 7,500 people across 24 countries, AECI had to contend with various legislative requirements in each region and follow recommendations from local health authorities while making key decisions timeously.

The process was owned by the group executive because in times of chaos people need leadership and direction, said Candice. “Our top priorities were to navigate a constantly shifting environment, maintain business continuity, be able to track the health and safety of people and make sure that protocols were upheld at every step,” she added. “People need to know you have put in rigorous measures to protect them, and consistently communicating these is important, because psychological safety in a crisis like this is crucial.”

Toeing the legal health and safety line

Chloe Loubser, senior associate at Bowmans, said from a legal perspective, more onerous regulations have been placed on employers and it is vital that they keep up to date with them. She noted that there’s also more enforcement from the authorities, pointing to the retail sector as an example. “There are a lot more inspections and penalties can be levied for non-compliance,” she said.

Chloe added that reporting obligations on employers have also changed, requiring that if you have more than 50 employees onsite, you need to report on conditions. However, as Chloe pointed out, you could be an employer who employs 500 employees, but the bulk of your employees are still working from home or you have a rotational or shift system. “If you know every day that maybe only 30 people are coming into your premises, we’ve taken the view that those reporting obligations do not apply because you’re not meeting the threshold of 50.”

Shift in culture

The experts agreed that in sectors where there’s already a history or a culture of compliance when it comes to health and safety, for instance in industries where the conditions are more hazardous, people tend to be more compliant.
Wearing masks and washing hands religiously is wearying for some and when it comes to compliance fatigue, Elanie said it’s about the reinforcement of key messages through regular engagement. “You have to keep emphasising the same message, but using different angles or delivering in different ways,” she said. “Luckily, in this instance, the message that we are sharing is also being repeated in public service messages, so there’s reinforcement from that angle as well.”
Chloe said employers also need to look more closely at grey areas such as work-from-home obligations. ensuring that your workers have acceptable working conditions, with adequate sanitation, access to the internet, and an ergonomically suitable chair. “We have advised clients to have employees sign declarations of the suitability of conditions to address this,” she said.