SAAF shuts down HQ building due to ventilation problems

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Due to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions caused by malfunctioning ventilation systems, the South African Air Force (SAAF) is temporarily closing its headquarters building in Pretoria.

A notice circulated to employees using the headquarters building advised members to execute their duties from home between 26 February and 11 March. They were told to join a WhatsApp group call every morning to report their readiness for work.

Anyone needing to visit the building will have to wear a mask at all times, sanitise regularly, preferably visit in the morning, and limit visit duration to a maximum of two hours.

The Chief Director Air Policy and Plans (CDAPP) is relocating to Directorate Air Force Acquisition (DAFA) at Air Force Base Waterkloof while other Chief Directors will be at the Africa Aerospace and Defence offices at Waterkloof, and the Air Force Command Council will be at Waterkloof VIP Movements.

The ‘evacuation’ of the SAAF HQ building (Loftus Building) comes after a 19-23 February inspection by the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL) with specific reference to the health and safety of the breathable air, the high temperatures experienced in the building, and the challenges pertaining to ventilation of fresh air in the building.

According to a draft SAAF document seen by defenceWeb, after the inspection the DEL “deemed the Loftus Building to be in contravention of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act” and issued a Prohibition Notice to the Chief of the Air Force. “The crux of the notice is that the use of areas, where the mechanised ventilation system is not working and where there is no means of means of natural ventilation, is prohibited.”

The Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo, instructed the Air Force Command Council to apply the same principles used during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown for two weeks to reduce possible risks to personnel caused by contaminated air and poor ventilation, without impeding operations.

“At the same time the SAAF will continue to pursue, through the offices of SecDef and Chief Logistics, solutions to mitigate the challenges of the poor air quality and ventilation in the Loftus Building.” This will entail replacement of the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems.

The SAAF indicated the ‘stay away’ period may have to be extended.

Due to the failure of the SAAF HQ’s HVAC systems, inside temperatures reach over 40 degrees on warm days. City Press in January reported that the building gets so hot that computer servers frequently overheat. This has been the situation for more than a year now, with problems making headlines as far back as February 2022.

In January the SA National Defence Union (Sandu) issued an ultimatum that Mbambo provide an outline of how the situation will be brought into line with occupational safety regulations, or the union would ask the Department of Employment and Labour to intervene.

Earlier this month Mbambo said the SAAF was working hard to address the issue, particularly with other relevant stakeholders it relies on, notably the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI), as the DPWI is responsible for repairs.

SAAF headquarters, commissioned 30 years ago, has room for 1 200 employees on two floors above ground and three floors below. Only one out of six roof-mounted temperature control systems is operational. Additionally, of the three systems tasked with managing the temperatures of the subterranean floors, two are at half capacity, and one is entirely defunct due to obsolescence.

Components for the systems are so out of date that they are no longer repairable, the City Press reported, adding it is estimated that replacing the systems could cost up to R5 billion. But with the budget currently so tight that more than three-quarters of the SAAF’s aircraft are unserviceable, the replacement of air conditioning systems is low on the priority list.

Sandu National Secretary, Advocate Pikkie Greeff, said, “The shutdown of the South African Airforce Headquarters in Pretoria, triggered by a critical failure of its ventilation systems, highlights the severe implications of insufficient funding and maintenance within the SANDF. The DPWI’s role in this predicament points to a broader systemic issue and pattern of dereliction that requires urgent attention. Our SA Airforce members deserve a safe and healthy working environment and it is crucial that immediate measures are taken to address these deficiencies and safeguard their welfare.”