As South Africa gradually reopens the economy, the Department of Health has issued guidelines intended to protect workers from exposure to Covid-19.

The Guidelines, which appear in the Covid-19 Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Workplaces Directive published by the minister of Employment and Labour on 28 April 2020, place the onus on employers to monitor and train staff.

According to the guidelines, all employees should be screened for Covid-19 related symptoms prior to entering the workplace, at the start of their shift and just before their shift ends. Any employees showing symptoms should be referred for further assessment and/or testing.

Gerald Naidoo, CEO of Leviathan Viral Testing Africa, says that while these procedures are necessary, testing should be given a bigger priority.

“Companies that have the ability to conduct regular testing on employees can not only provide peace of mind to all their staff by identifying asymptomatic cases, but can also ensure that there is no need for staff members to have to travel to another location to get tested,” he points out.

“I believe that a great deal of the communication around this has been couched in unnecessarily negative terms. The guidelines state that an employee can be barred from the workplace if they refuse testing, indicating that employers can ‘force’ staff to get tested.

“Legally, this is understandable because the Employment Equity Act prohibits medical testing as a rule, but creates certain exceptions where testing is permissible. However, we are overlooking the fact that employees have the right to a safe working environment, and as part of that, they have the right to get tested to know their status.”

Naidoo adds that many companies are still working out their testing strategies, with many focusing on ensuring social distancing in the workplace, providing sufficient quantities of hand sanitiser, and providing employees with face masks.

“These measures are actually not a solution. Face masks must be worn properly, and we see people pulling them down below their nose all the time. Similarly, taking temperatures means that asymptomatic cases can be missed. Testing is the only way to ensure that a company protects its employees fully.”

He says that many companies are under the impression that testing is not something they can do themselves, but has to be referred to specific medical facilities. However, the current turnaround time for test results ranges from four hours to two days.

“This is especially problematic for those workers who have been exposed and required to quarantine. The guidelines state that if the employee is asymptomatic for seven days after the exposure, the employer may consider that they return to work following a negative result of a real-time Covid-19 test (RT-PCR) on day eight. In reality, that means they may only get back to work on day 9, 10, 11 or even 12,” Naidoo explains.

“Most companies are not aware that there are alternatives that they can make use of, particularly if they have a lot of frontline staff. Our SmartAmp test kits, for example, are mobile and can deliver results in under 30 minutes with 99,99% accuracy.

“For large organisations, this solution is infinitely preferable to having to send hundreds of people for tests that take days to get results, and makes the entire screening process much simpler.

“If companies have the ability to test all of their staff, and re-do those tests regularly, they can create a safe working environment that offers peace of mind to employees as well as customers.”