• Shaun Bateman

Managing the health and safety of employees returning to work

Everything you need to know as an employer

Ina van der Watt, Director of Universal Corporate Wellness

With President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing a phased lifting of the lockdown commencing 1 May, many business owners and managers are starting to prepare for the safe return of workers to the workplace, says the Director of Universal Corporate Wellness, Ina van der Watt.

"All businesses that are permitted to resume operations will be required to do so in a phased manner, first preparing the workplace for a return to operations, followed by the return of the workforce in batches of no more than one-third," said President Ramaphosa during his announcement.

A document developed by the Ministry of Health prior to the President's announcement stipulates furthermore, that all businesses must have COVID-19 risk assessments and plans in place, and conduct worker education on COVID-19 and protection measures before they will be allowed to operate. This document also contains a number of health and safety rules that are to be adopted across all sectors of the economy and ‘alert levels’, including stringent social distancing measures.

“As a healthcare company providing an essential service, Universal Corporate Wellness, which has closely monitored the coronavirus outbreak since early this year, put a number of business continuity contingency plans into action well ahead of the lockdown,” comments Van Der Watt.

“These plans were based on guidance from the World Health Organization [WHO], the National Institute for Communicable Diseases [NICD] and the Department of Health, and are designed to ensure that staff is kept as healthy and productive as possible during the pandemic while ensuring that our service levels to our clients remain at their usual high standard,” she says.

“The upshot of these measures has been that Universal Corporate Wellness, which forms part of the Universal Group, has not only been able to continue to effectively provide its health services to clients throughout the lockdown period, but the company has also garnered considerable experience in protecting those employees who form part of the core teams required to come into the workplace on a daily basis to perform critical business functions.”

Van Der Watt says that the practices adopted at Universal Corporate Wellness have pre-empted the requirements of the Government’s rules document for those businesses that will be able to have employees returning to work after 1 May. “We are proud of this and feel that our experience in this regard may be of benefit to corporates and business owners who will have staff members returning to work in the near future,” she adds.

So what do the State’s new rules for the staged phase-out of the lockdown stipulate?


  • Corporates and industries should continue to work from home remotely where possible.

  • Workplace protocols must be put in place for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 infection as well as for disease surveillance.

  • Social distancing measures must be implemented in the workplace.

  • All employees must be screened on a daily basis for symptoms, including a symptom check and temperature assessment. They should also all use cloth masks, particularly where social distancing may represent a challenge.

  • Sanitisers and/or handwashing facilities with soap must be made available.

  • Workers above the age of 60, as well as workers with comorbidities identified by the Department of Health, should be offered a work-from-home option or allowed to remain on leave with full pay.

“Universal established a special Universal COVID-19 Action Task Committee comprising senior executives in February to assist us in collectively navigating this challenging time. Among the measures we implemented then was making arrangements for as many work teams as possible to work from home.


However, as an essential services health provider with a number of blue-chip corporate and medical schemes clients, there is a staff contingency on site too. To protect the staff working from our offices from infection, we introduced a range of rigorous hygiene and other measures,” notes Van Der Watt.

“One of the first measures that we adopted as part of our response to the rapidly evolving situation and the need to avoid unnecessary interpersonal contact, was to discourage all face-to-face meetings unless they were absolutely essential and rather encourage the use of technologies such as MS Teams, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and other teleconferencing facilities. These new ways of communicating took a little time for many of us to adjust to but they have quickly become established practice.”

According to Van Der Watt, social distancing is a key defence against the spread of the COVID-19 and so Universal quickly took various measures to implement it within its workplace, including by physically distancing employees in the office by creating more space between desks and workstations. This was made easier by the fact that a large number of our staff members were working from home, which provided the company with more office space to ensure that all workstations could be well separated from one another.

“We commenced monitoring staff and visitors coming into our office building for signs and symptoms of the virus and checking their temperatures. Hand sanitizers were placed in all entrances and exits, for use by staff and visitors when they enter and leave the offices, and were also placed in each bathroom and other strategic points. In addition, we took steps to ensure that, where possible, staff worked in well-ventilated spaces. We leave all inter-leading office doors open so that door handles do not have to be touched. A regular disinfection regime of high-touch surfaces, in particular, was also implemented.”

“The pandemic has not only resulted in us having to take precautions within our office space but has also quite radically changed how we provide services to clients. We have, for example, limited scheduled face-to-face counselling to cases where it is really needed, rather scheduling telephonic or video counselling where this is possible.

“We have also had to put in place a number of specific contingency measures in close cooperation with each individual client and adapted our operations and policies where necessary in order to ensure that we are able to continue to deliver the most effective and meaningful services possible to them over this time. So while our onsite debriefings continue to go ahead, the focus is now largely on virtual COVID-19 screening and awareness. We are working with our clients to ensure that these are undertaken with all due precautions being taken to protect their employees.

“These are unprecedented times not only for Universal but for all businesses. In our experience, however, with careful planning, innovative ways can be found to not only continue to provide meaningful and quality services to our clients, but to play our part in helping to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus,” concludes Van Der Watt.

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