A small team, with a large footprint, plays major role in South African workplace health and safety in the midst of COVID-19

2 Jul 2020 - 11:30
From left to right: Prof Mohamed Jeebhay, Assoc. Prof Shahieda Adams, Dr Zahida Sonday, Dr Roslynn Baatjies. Dr Itumeleng Ntatamala, Faranaaz Bennett, Dr Jarrod Matthei (from University of Pennsylvania), Dr Amy Burdzik (Picture taken Pre-COVID-19)

By Thania Gopal

“COVID-19 has forced us to delve deep into our inner resources to appreciate our common humanity and use our skills and creativity to act with unreserved solidarity and compassion in facing the challenges in our workplaces and broader community,” says Professor Mohamed Jeebhay, head of the Division of Occupational Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for occupational medicine expertise to inform occupational health and safety (OHS) policy, workplace strategies, safeguard worker’s health and return to work strategies aimed at mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on workers and workplaces. The primary goal is to ensure workforce preservation for sustainable economic activity and health care delivery.

The Division of Occupational Medicine, located in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine has been centrally involved in providing occupational health and safety policy and technical support to the University, the Faculty of Health Sciences as well as the national and provincial Departments of Health during this time.

Associate Professor Shahieda Adams, head of the occupational medicine clinic says, “The COVID pandemic has demonstrated the crucial role played by health workers in treating cases and managing the health impacts of the pandemic. It is this realisation that has thrown a spotlight on the working conditions, hazardous exposures and increased risk to health faced by these frontline staff.”

According to Adams, health workers currently make up 5% of total COVID-19 cases in the Western Cape with 91% of cases in the public health sector facilities. “There is therefore a need to focus on workplace polices that address health and safety considerations of health workers, to limit spread of the pandemic and ensure the delivery of essential services and facilitate return to work. All of these require technical input by occupational health experts”.

The Division, which comprises three occupational medicine specialists  and two occupational medicine registrars have made a significant contribution to managing the health and safety of staff and in particular health workers in the province during this challenging time. This includes the development of OHS policy and essential training of staff in the Western Cape Department of Health. At a national level the development of a return to work mobile health screening tool (the COVID-19-Medical passport)is currently being used in general workplaces and some higher education institutions to ensure that entrants are free of COVID-19 related symptoms when they enter their pace of work.

The team also need to navigate difficult terrain such as dealing with the anxiety and mental health impact of COVID- 19 amongst health workers, managing vulnerable employees while maintaining service delivery, exploring how to build resilience amongst staff, and balancing the health service needs with individual health needs when advising on return to work strategies.

Adams says some of the major learnings during this challenging period has been the significance of “acknowledging the anxiety and fear that health workers may be experiencing; being honest while still being supportive and compassionate, and the importance of social solidarity and the realisation that we are all in this together”.

Read more about the diverse roles the Division is taking on.

National Department of Health

Professor Jeebhay currently serves on the management team of the Occupational Health and Safety Stream established by the National Department of Health and has provided technical input into COVID-specific occupational health and safety policies related to risk assessment, screening, testing and ongoing health monitoring of workers, management of vulnerable  workers, engagement with NEDLAC (National Economic, Development and Labour Council) and other stakeholders on new COVID-19 related legislative directives on OHS and worker’s compensation, occupational health information systems, training initiatives and providing OHS support to an underserviced province such as the Northern Cape.

(For further information read)

UCT, higher educational institutions

Professor Jeebhay was centrally involved in creating a return to work mobile screening tool (the COVID-19-Medical passport) together with Professor Naidoo at University of KwaZulu Natal  that is currently being used in general workplaces and higher institutions of learning to assess individual risk of staff and their health status prior to entering the workplace. Assoc Prof Adams head of the GSH Occupational medicine clinic has provided input into Faculty policies and standard operating procedures (SOPs) aimed at managing the health and safety aspects related to COVID-19 and a return to work. Through her participation in the UCT Health Advisory Working Group, she has also provided policy support to the broader University in relation to return to standard operations procedures for returning staff and students. Dr Amy Burdzik, a part-time consultant and head of occupational dermatology is based at the UCT Occupational health service.

(For further information read)

Provincial Department of Health

Associate Professor Shahieda Adams and Dr Itumeleng Ntatamala, the occupational medicine registrar based at the Provincial office, have played a central role in supporting and developing a provincial OHS policy for staff in the Western Cape Department of Health, training of staff on OHS and providing support to the provincial outbreak team on  workplace cases and procedures and worker’s compensation issues. Technical support and advisory services are also provided to the different substructures of the Department of Health, in relation to the management of cases among staff in the workplace. Dr Amy Burdzik also led the development of easy to use guidelines for ‘protecting your skin’ during the COVID-19 pandemic for use by workers in the Western Cape Deparment of Health.

Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH)

Associate Professor Adams and Dr Zahida Sonday, the occupational medicine registrar based at GSH, have been engaged in policy development as it relates to COVID-19 specific health risk assessments, standard operating procedures, tracking and tracing of cases among staff and assessment of vulnerable workers. Dr Sonday is also centrally involved in the reporting of occupationally acquired cases of COVID among staff at GSH and facilitating clinical and psychosocial support to cases returning to work.

Other sectors  

Divisional staff have also been engaged in forums that focus on sectoral- specific needs such as OHS issues for teachers and students in the Department of Basic Education and the Return2Work, an initiative offering South African businesses clear and simple step by step guidance on re-opening and staying open, incorporating the key legal requirements and tools to minimise infection and maximise compliance.