‘Safe Return to the Workplace' Guideline

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world, Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) and Zutari (formerly known as Aurecon) has launched a ‘safe return to the workplace’ guideline to help facilitate a responsible reopening of offices in South Africa. 

safe return to the workplace

“What is emerging is a realisation that lockdown cannot be a long-term strategy against COVID-19 and that the ‘new normal’ for workplaces is evolving because of the need for human interaction,” said Georgina Smit, GBCSA’s Head of Technical.  

“Although a ‘new normal’ is emerging in office working, it will need to respond not only to a changed world of work but will have to manage health-related risks as well,” she added.   

Best practices and recommendations

The guideline, developed by GBCSA and Zutari, is a technical guide for existing buildings that identifies best practise recommendations for a healthy and safe return. The guide is available for free and aimed at building owners, facilities managers, office managers and tenants.

“Commercial buildings design standards don’t aim to minimise the spread of infectious disease. Not to the same extent hospitals. However by implementing various measures in the workplace can reduce the risk of transmission.” said Martin Smith, an experienced mechanical engineer and Technical Director at Zutari.

The framework and guideline consist of five categories and 45 initiatives. The range of options to consider when implementing the return to the workplace; with safety as the key priority. It provides an overview that identifies infection control strategies at various levels of decision-making and responsibility.

Smit explains; “the guidelines are similar to the Green Star rating tools with various interventions under applicable categories. A short aim description and background are provided for each initiative. The guide puts forward a recommended best practice for each initiative. It is a user-friendly starting point for stakeholders to understand what needs to be considered for a safe workplace.”

Points of control

The guide considers initiatives related to management, personal behaviour, indoor air quality, safe water systems and design for safety. Each category is collated around the point of control within the building in mind. For example, the Management Category highlights the need for mental health support services that encourage resiliency and ensures that discrimination does not occur.

Smit said that the first step for those interested in applying this to a building they work in is a healthy building assessment audit. “The purpose of this is to provide an understanding of the current status of the building and its related services and address the preparedness of management and staff to handle health-related risks. It serves as a gap analysis of your building’s status in relation to desired outcomes and requirements of this guide.”

Zutari’s Martin Smith emphasised that the role of air quality needs to be considered. “You really want to address building ventilation rates to ensure sufficient ventilation or outdoor air supply rates are provided to minimise a build-up of pathogens or contaminants suspended in the air. Good amounts of fresh air also contribute to occupant wellness, which could have translated into productivity benefits.”

Mitigation strategies

When considering mitigation strategies for your building; it is important to understand how infections such as COVID-19 spread. The risk associated with the following four most common transmissions routes should be addressed when using this guide: person to person via macro droplets; airborne transmission; fomite transmission and faecal-oral transmission. 

“Mitigating risks associated with each one of these transmission routes has a massive impact on the way a building and its occupants need to be managed to ensure everyone’s safety;” Smith added. 

It is the responsibility of organisations encouraging staff to return to work; to ensure due processes and protocols are followed for the safety of employees. Companies need to be compliant with the SA Government Coronavirus (COVID-19) Regulations and Guidelines. This guideline provides free additional robust support for the South African commercial and retail sector; through the lens of green building priorities.

GBCSA and Zutari urged stakeholders to; “use this opportunity to facilitate the shift to creating healthy spaces for people to work; collaborate and contribute to creating a better place for all of us.” 

The Framework & Guideline for the Safe Return to the Workplace can be viewed and downloaded here. The initiatives can be downloaded here.

Visit the official COVID-19 government website to stay informed: sacoronavirus.co.za