Published 11 September 2020, Daily Maverick
After surviving one of the longest lockdowns in the world, but with the concomitant cost to the economy as revealed in Statistics SA’s second-quarter GDP figures released in the second week of September 2020, South Africa has now moved into the next phase of dealing with the pandemic: It’s no longer a case of lives versus livelihoods, but the urgent need to do both.
It’s not an impossible balancing act; the trick is in understanding the risk and mitigating it – without having to rationalise that people will die and inure yourself to that prospect. The mining industry, aviation sector and healthcare sector, especially, are all everyday proof that ostensibly hazardous occupations can be carried out relatively safely – if the correct protocols are established and followed. We are all working in a higher-risk environment now.
We can work in a Covid-19 environment; in fact we have no option but to do so, not just because of the severe contraction in almost every sector in the lockdown and the human, health and economic consequences of that, but because we will inevitably face more zoonotic pandemics as our mounting population encroaches further on nature globally. Without creating safe workplaces, we face the prospect of subsequent waves of Covid-19 infections until a vaccine is found, as well as the reality of other viral pandemics that we haven’t even begun to contemplate yet.
There’s a prevailing myth that taking measures to combat the virus is a lost cause, especially if we have already passed the peak of Covid-19. The truth is very different. For a start, the virus is still there – we have to adjust to living with it. Secondly, we’ve learned that some work we can do better in a remote office, and other work – connection, creativity, coordination – less well. It’s probable that for many, a mixed week, half remote and half in the office, will become a more productive and future-ready balance than before. And creating a Covid-19-safe workplace, systematically reducing risk through clear thinking, good stats and progressively minimising risk points, will not only boost your productivity now but will also virus-proof your operation the next time there is an outbreak. You will be able to continue operating when those who haven’t taken these steps have to shutter their operations for the next lockdown.
There are multiple levels to becoming pandemic proof; from revisiting the design and architecture of offices, to ensuring that the ventilation in workspaces is extractive to push fresh air into the environment, closing down communal services, allocating communal spaces and rostering staff. Like the case of aviation and other hazardous occupations, we start by reducing the incidence rate by progressively eradicating risk points with the ultimate baseline being zero incidents.
If you have face-to-face contact within one metre or were in a closed space for more than 15 minutes with a person with Covid-19, you are a “close contact” and should isolate for 14 days. The more people, the less the distance, the worse the ventilation, the greater the risk. So, if you change the air every 30 minutes, ensure everyone wears masks, keep them at least two metres apart when they are together and significantly reduce the number of people who come into an office space, you massively reduce the chance of transmission.
It’s like any complex systemic problem, there are multiple aspects and resolving most of these centres on changing behaviours. As we prepare to return to work, after working remotely for the last five months, we have to adjust our minds to a risk mindset. We must assume that everyone is unknowingly infected with Covid-19 – including ourselves – because 50% or more of cases are actually asymptomatic.
That’s the first rule. Our second mantra must be to make it as hard as possible to catch Covid-19 at work, whether from other people directly or indirectly from sitting at desks, or even going to the toilet. We achieve this through social distancing, sanitisation and personal hygiene protocols.
The final rule is to ensure that if anyone does contract the virus, it is passed to as few people as possible. We do this by separating the workforce population; limiting the number of staff in the building at any one time, getting them to work from home at least two days a week if practical and assigning them to different buildings or, if impractical, different parts of the building. We have to be quick, be distanced, be outdoors, be masked, be awake.
There’s a new science that we have to learn as senior managers because not every role can be performed remotely; some jobs are both physical and collaborative, requiring social contact. We have to manage those. If we do this properly, we can turn Covid-19 from a Black Swan event into part and parcel of our risk management as we head to a future which will be characterised by future pandemics because of the increasing size of global populations and the strains with which we are burdening our planet.
We will need protocols and policies; risk management teams that include design experts, public health and sanitation experts; and, great managers who can readily adopt and champion these innovations so that the next time there is a public health catastrophe, our companies aren’t nearly as affected as so many were by the lockdown. This is also important because it prevents us from going on autopilot – and becoming complacent.
Speaking as a former airline captain and flight instructor, the problem with autopilot is that it compensates for the known, but it can’t react to the unknown. So, you set it by what you expect – like a safe sector cruising altitude of 10,000ft – but if you are blown of course, get lost and disoriented you may now be in an area where there is an entire mountain range ahead, looming above you, shrouded in fog. When that happens, your friendly autopilot becomes your mindless nemesis; the unknown can be fatal. Just as Covid-19 has been, sadly, for so many disoriented businesses here and across the world. But it needn’t be like that.
Drawing from decades of successfully and safely transporting people, sometimes at supersonic speeds several kilometres high in the sky, we need to develop not just the protocols and policies to deal with our current realities, we also need to engender a culture of healthy scepticism. This is different from cynicism, because it’s not negative but rather a neutral system of perpetual checks and balances, that leads to a preventative system that encourages positive behavioural change by perpetually keeping people aware of the inherent risk.
At some mining companies, they manage this by giving all employees red cards, like football referees, that they carry around. Everyone is required to hand them out to anyone caught breaking the rules, especially when it comes to occupational safety – even the CEO. It’s a marvellous idea. Imagine if we incorporated it in all our companies – against those who don’t sanitise their hands before coming to a meeting, wear a face mask or keep their distance, just for starters? Because if we can create a culture of challenging our leaders and holding them to account on something as small as that, it’s a lot easier to keep them in check when it comes to the big-ticket items like corporate collusion and corruption.