The human race is currently on the battlefield against an invisible enemy known as COVID-19 (coronavirus), a health crisis that has put the global economy to a standstill as governments introduce stringent emergency measures to curb its spread among large populations of people.
In response to the recent outbreak of the disease in Ghana, with a number of infections soaring each day, the government has imposed a partial lockdown on major cities while equipping frontline workers to control the situation across the nation.
The Ghana Institute of Safety and Environmental Professionals (GhISEP), as the sole Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) Professional Body has observed the growing spread of COVID-19 in Ghana, and the World as a whole. In order to limit the spread to prevent severe situations as seen in other badly affected countries, following the earlier press release dated March 20, 2020, our Occupational Health & Safety and Environment experts’ recommendations in the role play in support of the fight against COVID-19.
As the scars of the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread around the world, of which Ghana is no exception, occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals seem to have been left behind who plays a key role in helping organizations protect workers, communicate accurately and effectively about the risks, and ensure business continuity when a pandemic event threatens to disrupt normal operations.
First, rely on trusted resources and information and planning for community person-to-person spread of the virus (sustained local transmission or contact tracing) with government agencies. “The key right now for most OSH professionals across the world are helping in the fight and contributing to planning for community person-to-person spread of the virus (otherwise known as sustained local transmission) in areas where the country has its reported cases.”
The following are some of the ways that the OSH professionals in Ghana could also contribute their quota and professional skills to the country’s fight against the COVID-19 which will go a long way in the minimization of the risk and hazard of recorded cases as of today.
Misinformation and rumors are a concern during any pandemic because they can heighten fear and create greater uncertainty. That's why it is important to take time to identify, share and rely on trusted sources for the latest information as the situation evolves. “The best sources of information are WHO, CDC MoI, MOH and OSHA, and scientific medical sources such as GMA, etc.
Safety professionals can also support their country’s efforts to communicate effectively and accurately by sharing information that discourages rumors and refutes erroneous information from the Internet.
WHO offers a set of myth-busting infographics that OSH professionals, government and employers can readily share to help government and citizenry, employers and employees and their families understand the facts and make good decisions.
Secondly, Taking Action to Prepare for a Pandemic Risk Assessment is a potent tool in everything we do be it individual, organization or country.
It helps one to mirror on the possible risk and hazard of an activity that ought to be undertaking. From a risk assessment/management perspective, many countries should already have a pandemic plan as part of the governance mechanism but organizations do not have such plans as part of their business continuity plans and strategy.
As a checklist for those organizations that have a plan and as a starting point for those that do not, I do recommend the following set of actions organizations through the government: Develop a plan for the communities, country, and worker absences, Develop flexible attendance and sick-leave policies.
For example, depending on the makeup of your workforce, safety professionals can encourage employers to consider pandemic pay policies that allow sick workers to stay home, regardless of the amount of paid leave they have accumulated, Identify critical job functions and positions, and plan for alternative coverage by cross-training staff as well as conducting a formal hazard assessment for those parties involved.
In addition, as countries identify critical services within unordinary days as we have it today, the need for risk assessments in the activities is key especially with the frontline workers, that would need to continue should business be disrupted by an outbreak, that OSH professionals can help determine the risks of alternate processes and identify training needed such as in the contact tracing if frontline workers are cross-trained to roles that they haven’t performed before. It is also important to consider work hours and fatigue if staffing is reduced by illness.
Thirdly, the establishment of communication protocols with government agencies, frontline worker and employers. Another area that the government should address as part of their plan is how they will reach the citizenry and employees to provide information about workplace conditions even after the COVID-19, closures or instructions. For instance, many companies have systems that deliver text messages or e-mails about weather closures and other emergencies that can be used for pandemic communications as well, provided the company has collected necessary contact information in advance.
In cases where some workplace doesn’t have such as system, then social media, traditional TV, radio or newspapers may be the only ways to let employees know what is happening, let's also keep in mind that if employees are working from home on their own computers and phones, their coworkers may not know how to reach them without having personal e-mail or phone numbers.
Fourthly, Create an Effective Telework Policy as concern around the spread of coronavirus grows, it is a good time to review our telework policy or to develop one if an organization does not have one. “Promoting teleworking across your organization will help the country and business to keep operating and keep employees and citizens safe.
If there is an outbreak in your community, the public health authorities may advise people to avoid public transport and crowded places.” You can find many examples of telework policies online by searching terms like "sample telework policy," "telework policy template" and "telecommuting policy template."
As part of a telework program, your company’s IT team will need to determine what equipment is available, assess system capacity, such as how many people can connect at one time and for what tasks (e.g., just e-mail or video conferencing), and make sure the connections are secure. For worker safety issues specifically, I recommend that both the communities and organization develop a checklist for employees to use and properly set up their home workspace and to identify safety risks.
Fifthly, effective prevention measures (the use of a hierarchy of controls) to determine the best way to protect the country, citizenry, employees, and employers. As with any risks, OSH professionals would use the hierarchy of controls to determine the best way to protect families, societies, and employees from hazards.
For instance, cleaning high-touch areas such as door handles and rails, washing hands frequently and thoroughly, not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, practicing good respiratory hygiene and staying home when they are sick are good practices for people to follow during cold and flu season, and they apply in this COVID-19 outbreak as well.” Employers will want to ensure they have adequate supplies of tissues, trash receptacles and 60% alcohol hand sanitizer.
Masks should be made available only to those who become sick at work until they leave the workplace. “N95 masks should be reserved for existing work settings with particulate exposure from work functions, emergency responders or healthcare facilities. Despite the fact that the public in some cultures uses masks in many public spaces, masks are not effective against the spread of COVID-19 unless they are properly fitted and worn correctly along with other appropriate PPE. However, in Ghana, it's being used and applied wrongly.
According to WHO protocols, masks are only to be worn by affect people or people suspected to have symptoms of the COVID-19 but what do we see around, even people in the vehicles all alone around found with the mask. The OSH professional is best trained on PPE acquisition, usage, maintenance, etc.
Sixthly, advice and address global responsibilities and travel precautions with government and agencies as well as employers. Thus, OSH professionals with responsibilities in global operations may already be dealing with government-required closures, reductions of operations or travel restrictions due to local person-to-person spread of the virus. “In these cases, the pandemic plan will already be activated,” Thus, following local requirements, travel bans and use the WHO guidance that is updated daily in order to determine the next steps.” Most global companies have been requiring those returning to Ghana from a country with COVID-19 to work at home and monitor for fever for 14 days.
Other measures to consider for employees who travel: Share the latest CDC information on areas where there is sustained local transmission of coronavirus, Avoid sending employees who may be at higher risk of serious illness (e.g., older employees and those with medical conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease) to areas where COVID-19 is spreading, Make sure all persons traveling to locations reporting virus cases are briefed by a qualified health professional such as the on-site occupational health provider, make sure the employee knows who to contact at work if they are diagnosed with COVID-19.
Also, ensure that the confidentiality of health information is maintained.
Notwithstanding that, OSH professionals and other frontline workers can take many steps to help protect and educate citizens. But they must also take care not to inadvertently cause more concern or panic through certain actions.
“For example, avoid telling people that they will be fine and the risk to them is zero, adding to that the number of cases of COVID-19 in Ghana will grow as testing capacity by the government and local level increases in the next few weeks. “Acknowledging fear and allowing communities and employees to process that fear is an important step in risk communication. Keep providing facts and explaining what steps individuals can take to prepare. This is what they can control.”
In addition, communities and employers should not single out or discriminate against any group or individuals due to race, country of origin or health status. The outbreak will impact a wide range of people and no one group is responsible for spreading it.
COVID-19 is a droplet disease, “Although it can be spread by fresh droplets on a surface that is touched by someone who then touches their eyes, nose or mouth, the virus is fragile and will not live on surfaces very long.”
In conclusion, I urge the government, OSH professionals, agencies and employers to strictly adhere to the above steps while exploring newly approved guidelines to safeguard the lives of Ghanaians. In doing so, it will take the collective effort of frontline workers including Health, Safety, Security and Environmentalists (HSSE) to collaborate effectively to end the spread of the virus in Ghana.