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Infectious Diseases

Updated 29 May 2020

Covid-19: Health and safety at Groote Schuur Hospital

Health and safety officers play a critical role in keeping hospitals safe. Tiyese Jeranji spoke to Jan Engelbrecht, a health and safety officer at Groote Schuur Hospital where 69 staff members have tested positive for Covid-19.

Infection control and safety in hospitals are important at the best of times, but during an outbreak such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, the stakes are higher than ever. By 21 May, 69 staff members at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town tested positive for Covid-19. 

Jan Engelbrecht is a health and safety officer at Groote Schuur. In over 40 years in this line of work, he has at times been exposed to very high health or safety hazards, but he says he has never seen anything like Covid-19. At the age of 60, Engelbrecht himself falls into one of the higher risk groups for becoming seriously ill with Covid-19. 

“I try to protect myself as far as reasonably practical by obeying the health and safety rules and regulations. I try to limit my exposure time to hot spot areas and try to live a healthy lifestyle. However, the risk of getting infected will always be there and to live with that fear of getting infected will always be very stressful. I have thus changed my mindset to ensure that I am ready to fight the virus if I get infected. The only person I’m in contact with after-hours is my wife. We have discussed the risk at the start of the pandemic and together we are ready to face it should one or both of us get infected,” says Engelbrecht.

The father of two joined Groote Schuur Hospital in 2010 and hopes to stay for many more years. “I’m hoping to work until I’m 90-years-old,” he says.

Preparing the hospital

Engelbrecht explains that preparing the hospital for the pandemic means “engineering control measures, such as adjusted ventilation systems, building of new test cubicles, administrative measurements, such as new safe operating procedures and training employees on good hygiene practices and determining which personal protective equipment for specific areas are required”. 

“This is all part of the preparations the hospital is taking for Covid-19 cases. Several employees from a number of departments were all involved in these decisions,” he says adding that this (Covid-19) is a new thing for everyone, so things are being learned and changed as the pandemic progresses.

Keeping staff safe

“Covid-19 does not only have a negative effect on the health of the patients and our staff that are infected, but it also creates a lot of fear and uncertainty among our employees. Implementing control measures to lower the risk of exposure and to train our employees on how to protect themselves creates a little bit of security among our employees,” he says.

“We are still in a learning curve on how to protect our employees to the best of our ability. With the current information available, we do protect our employees by ensuring they have personal protective clothing and ensuring that they follow the basic rules of wearing a mask all the time and washing hands,” he says. 

Part of Engelbrecht’s job is to train staff on the correct use of PPEs and to ensure they are used all the time and used appropriately. He stresses the need for everyone to do their part. It is the responsibility of every area, ward, and clinic manager to identify the health and safety risks in their area of responsibility, he says. 

“Once this is done, the manager must try to eliminate or mitigate the unacceptable risk by implementing engineering and administrative control measures. If it is not reasonably practical to eliminate the risk or to mitigate it to an acceptable level, the manager can then issue PPE as a last option. It is also the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the required PPE is available to any person who will enter the area and must also enforce the wearing of it.” 

Engelbrech stresses that employees must come with “the mind-set to improve health and safety standards as part of daily tasks in their working environments”. “Once we operate like this, this attitude will also flow through to our homes and we will also improve health and safety standards there,” he says.

‘Not a one-man job’

Engelbrecht says to be a good hospital health and safety officer one must be willing to walk the extra mile for that institution. “It has to be somebody with knowledge and experience of the applicable health and safety legislative requirements, the institution's health and safety policies and procedures and someone who serves the management and the employees with respect, honesty and dignity.”

With his wealth of knowledge and expertise, he is often asked by other hospitals to help with their health and safety issues. Engelbrecht says he has helped hospitals such as Worcester, Paarl, Valkenberg, Mowbray Maternity, Khayelitsha and New Somerset. According to Engelbrecht, most of the Western Cape public hospitals have identified and tasked a person to assist management to ensure health and safety compliance. 

“A number of these people (the occupational health nursing practitioners and the occupational health medicine registrars) are in possession of an occupational health qualification and thus have the occupational health knowledge, especially to provide inputs in the occupational medicine field,” he says. He, however, explains there are some of these institutions that do not have an occupational health nursing practitioner or an occupational health medicine registrar in their service.

“There are also the health and safety representatives that contribute to an effective health and safety programme,” he says. If health and safety in the hospital are taken lightly, it can have negative consequences. “It was proven over and over again that areas with a high level of non-compliance to health and safety standards have a negative impact on the morale of the employees in that area. More injuries occurred, staff are more often off sick and there is also a drop in their productivity,” says Engelbrecht.

This article was produced by SPOTLIGHT – health journalism in the public interest. SIGN UP for our newsletter.

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