Webinar reveals how to navigate health and safety in the face of vaccine uncertainty

As people are returning to work, HR needs to consider how to set policies and procedures.

As Covid-19 vaccines become more widely accessible, and some organisations are slowly returning to work, there are issues to consider when you are setting policies and communication plans regarding on-site work and Covid-19 vaccines.

In a Finance Indaba Network webinar, hosted in partnership with International SOS, experts explored options that HR practitioners have regarding the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out and its impact on health and safety, and wellness protocols.

Anneline Booyse-Mofokeng, security director for International SOS Africa, and Dr Chris Van Straten, medical director at Clinical Governance Africa, shared some advice on how to navigate health and safety given the uncertainty surrounding vaccinations.

Chris kicked off with a presentation, “Covid-19 vaccine rollout: situation update and impact on operations”. He focused on two key areas: a Covid-19 situation update for Africa, and preparing for the big return to work.

Update on Covid-19 in Africa and the world
The first thing Chris emphasised was that no one is safe until everyone is safe, saying that this is the most important thing people should always keep in mind.

“This is not only from the vaccine context but all the other measures we have taken so far and need to continue taking. These include masking, social distancing and isolation.”

Chris adds that some of the hype, misinformation and disinformation has caused a lot of anxiety and stress and in some instances, poor decision-making. “Being in the Africa footprint but also being connected to my colleagues globally, I think often a negative sentiment creeps in and you hear things like ‘the vaccine is bad or it's not working’.”

He shared a recent publication published by The Economist on 5 June 2021, which read “At last Europe’s vaccination programme has gathered pace, with supply bottlenecks starting to ease. Eastern Europe however, still lags behind.”

He explained that this proves the challenges in vaccine rollout have been global, “We have certainly seen some countries struggling more than others, but that’s certainly due to geographical or financial reasons.”

He also outlined that Israel was among the first countries to vaccinate half of their population and they have done this quickly: “Part of the reason they could do that is because it’s a small country and they have access to resources and their cultural norms made them roll this out effectively. And we have seen some really interesting things coming out of their data over the past couple of weeks which include reduced morbidity and mortality, hospitalisation and infection in the population.”

Do’s and don’ts of the vaccine rollout
Answering the audience question, ‘In the case that an employee cannot be vaccinated or does not want to be, for personal reasons, what can employers do and what implications will that have on the workplace?’ Chris said organisations need to understand that there are individuals with different backgrounds, knowledge and beliefs, and they need to be respectful of that.

“We need to be respectful and communicate in a way that explains the gravity of vaccinating,” he said. He added that the vaccine is not a legal requirement and you can choose not to vaccinate.

He explains that, “There is a group of people that might have pre-existing medical conditions and organisations have a lot to think about and discuss in that regard.”

Anneline Booyse-Mofokeng, security director for International SOS Africa, agreed with Chris that at this point, there is no rule that says employees can be fired or that organisations can discriminate against workers who do not want to vaccinate. She also weighed in on the importance of communication and informing people.

“It's all about conveying a message to our people, that your chances of not making it without a vaccine is greater than your chances of making it with the vaccine.”

Preparing for the return to work
Chris shared five steps for how you can support your return to operations. However, first there is the pre-re-entry, which is to access the latest information on global health security and pandemic updates. Then:
1. Risk Assessment
Have access to the latest information and the proper tools to develop ‘back to work’ policies, procedures and playbooks.

  •  Return to operations assessment
  • Building technical readiness evaluations

2. Workplace Zoning
Review and evaluate your building readiness and site safety guidelines prior to returning

  • Medical isolation for symptomatic employees
  •  Space guidelines and adjustments procedures

3. Point of entry screening
Have the appropriate procedures in place if an employee becomes symptomatic

  •  Run, monitor and manage the onsite screening programme
  • Screening protocols

4. Staff training
Ensure all staff using PPE (including cleaners) have been properly trained

  •  Select and train staff who will conduct point of entry screening
  •  Designate and train staff to fulfil specific roles when workforces return

5. Communication
Have access to a trusted and trained medical physician to ask questions and advise on best practices.

  • Covid-19 communication plan, have Q&A sessions with employees
  • Health promotion campaigns and return to ‘new normal’

The extent to which employers can get involved
Anneline Booyse-Mofokeng, security director at International SOS Africa, says that Covid-19 has brought people to a place where they have to break the silos.

In the past security managers and chief security officers were never seen being part of a crisis management team or engaging with HR.

“This is a time when you need to establish a compliance team for your organisation because for the security manager your perimeter has extended to the residences as well. Before Covid-19, you would typically have the office and the office building to take care of but now your responsibility extends to your employees’ homes, which have become the workplace, because people are working from home.”

Anneline raises the point that it can be difficult to work out exactly how much control you have over what people do in their homes. Employers often get feedback like, “But this is my private residence and my employer cannot tell me what to do at my house.” “But as an employee, you need to understand that your organisation has a responsibility, and we call it ‘duty of care’ to ensure your safety while you are at work, whether that is in your home or in the office.”

She says this can be easily compared to when an employee is travelling: just because you are out of the office does not mean that the responsibility of the employer stops.

Anneline concludes that it is important to create a team, which will be your security manager, wellness manager, chief security officer, and HR manager, to make sure you respond to all elements of the challenges associated with the vaccine, home security, mental health and duty of care from the employer’s side.