Sheena O’Brien, Health and Safety specialist at Sun International

This piece is written by Sheena O’Brien, Health and Safety specialist at Sun International.

Being proactive about health and safety under lockdown has helped Sun International make an easier level 1 transition as it continues to open doors.

The full impact of the six-month Covid-19 lockdown to the tourism and leisure industry has yet to be calculated, but the effects are already being felt. However, while the lockdown presented Sun International with significant challenges due to the prolonged closure, it also gifted us an opportunity to be proactive.

“While the lockdown presented Sun International with significant challenges due to the prolonged closure, it also gifted us an opportunity to be proactive.”

We were wading through uncharted territory, having never experienced a risk of this magnitude before. The pandemic has kept us on our toes, it has been challenging yet refreshing and proved that as a business, we can be agile. Tasked with developing our health and safety response to the pandemic, I went through the latest research, reviewed a variety of guidelines provided by government, the World Health Organization, Tourism Business Council of South Africa and international industry leaders to formulate our own Covid-19 risk prevention and control programme.

Our resulting Covid-19 Policy and Health Plan is a comprehensive document that outlines the measures we have taken as a group to protect our employees and customers. It contributed to the early re-opening of our business under an enhanced lockdown level 3 and paved the way for compliance when we passed three Department of Labour inspections in July.

Protecting our people

When lockdown level 5 was declared in March, our entire business shut down. Some units re-opened in July with less than 50% of employees returning to work on-site. At our Central Office in Johannesburg, approximately 7% of the employees returned to work on-site while the remainder worked from home. These numbers increased after inter-provincial travel for leisure purposes was allowed and in September, we brought back more of our revenue-generating departments to support the business.

“Different teams will work from the office on different days, with a minimum of two days in the office.”

In October, more people have returned to the central office but on a staggered basis. This approach means that different teams will work from the office on different days, with a minimum of two days in the office.

There are mixed feelings as employees return after spending six months at home. Some found it difficult to find a work-life balance and were excited to return, while others found that they were more productive working from home. Many employees also had high levels of stress and anxiety – a tough scenario to manage.

Evolving Health and Safety role

Looking back, Covid-19 has elevated the role of health and safety to unprecedented levels. The relationship between management and health and safety teams grew closer. The executive team and I engaged weekly to debate and implement practical measures to control our risks. Once in agreement, we began procuring the necessary equipment and chemicals, and developing other resources to manage our risks.

“Through constant monitoring and open dialogue, we will ensure that our offices remain a safe space for employees.”

As we welcome our colleagues back to central office, our approach is two-fold. We need to manage operational requirements alongside our risks. Our executives are informed regularly on regulatory limitations and the risks associated with bringing employees back. Each executive is responsible for managing their return to work schedules within the boundaries of these limitations and to inform me of challenges in order to manage our risks. Through constant monitoring and open dialogue, we will ensure that our offices remain a safe space for employees.

Returning employees attend an online orientation session to discuss the return to work plan, measures taken by the company to protect them and their responsibilities while working in the office. We also perform daily inspections to ensure compliance with protocols and provide information or assistance to employees.

Where deviations are identified, our Code of Conduct states that disciplinary action will be taken against any employee who does not comply with the law or any health and safety rules provided by the Company.

Supporting our employees’ wellbeing

To provide emotional and psychosocial support to employees in distress, we have a wellness partner which has been with us prior to the realities of Covid-19. Our wellness programme is a boon for those who feel unwell and need support. When I suffered from cabin fever while working from home and the lines between my work and personal lives were blurred, I took advantage of the programme and was referred to a psychologist. The intervention helped tremendously.

“When I suffered from cabin fever while working from home and the lines between my work and personal lives were blurred, I took advantage of the programme and was referred to a psychologist.”

In addition, the executive team increased communication with employees about the company’s standpoint, our Covid-19 response and what was expected of them.

As a group, we have done our utmost to reduce and manage exposure risks, but the unfortunate reality is that Covid-19 is easily transmissible. If each individual does not play their part, our control measures will not be effective. It will ultimately be up to each employee to protect themselves, but we are doing our best to assist in safeguarding them.