Harsh penalties for poor workplace safety
Following some rulings on workplace accidents in the United Kingdom (UK), it is clear that safety in the workplace should be a number one priority. WILLIAM GEORGE speaks to Legricon’s Advocate Hendrik Terblanche about workplace safety in South Africa
Companies are facing harsh penalties for not adhering to workplace safety regulations. An example of such an incident dates back to March 2014, in which three companies in a UK joint venture were fined £1 million (R16 million). The investigation found there had been a failure to properly enforce exclusion zones that would have helped protect workers from foreseeable harm.
According to Health and Safety Practitioner (HSP), the three companies were fined, after workers in a Crossrail project were exposed to workplace health and safety hazards. One worker died after nearly a tonne of wet concrete was poured onto him in March 2014, reports HSP.
This emphasises the need for companies to rethink and enforce their safety regulations to ensure that their workers are not exposed to hazards in the workplace. Terblanche explains how South African workplace safety regulations affect companies.
What kind of laws are in place to protect workers in South Africa?
While the common law rules are mainly aimed at liability following an incident, some legislation is aimed at preventing such incidents in the first place.
One can, therefore, say that “protection” from the law covers requirements aimed at preventing incidents, as well as those aimed at compensating people who have suffered a loss from workplace incidents (such as injury, disease or death) which will typically result in criminal and or civil liability.
The purpose of criminal liability is to punish the offender, while that of civil liability is to compensate the victim. These liabilities can arise in South Africa and other jurisdictions.
How can workers find out about their rights and the laws that protect them in the workplace?
The key role player is the national Department of Labour (DoL), which has multiple labour centres throughout the country. Other avenues include labour unions, university and other law clinics, the Compensation Fund call centre, as well as the Department of Mineral Resources.
Who do workers/former workers approach if they have been involved in an accident, or were injured at their workplace?
According to the legislation, they are required to report the incident to their employer, who must then report it to the various authorities where applicable. Unfortunately, we know there are many non-compliant employers in South Africa, so there is a risk that the employee might end up without any recourse.
In terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida), an incident that is not reported within 12 months can be refuted by the Compensation Fund. Therefore, the first suggested point of call will be the DoL centres.
What channels and resources are available for companies to ensure that their workers are safe?
DoL inspectors should be willing to visit a workplace on request of an employee or employer who is concerned about health and safety in their workplace. In addition, there are many private health and safety service providers that can assist companies.
With regard to resources, the legislation prescribes which resources (such as health and safety equipment, including personal protective equipment) must be provided to employees. The South African health and safety legislation also requires that workers should have access to an elected health and safety representative who should be able to assist them.
What protocols should be followed when an incident occurs in a workplace?
Ideally, employers should have a documented emergency or incident procedure that sets out the protocols to be followed. The first step is that the employee should notify the employer. If the employee is incapacitated as a result of the incident, then the employer will, hopefully, find out about the incident through someone else reporting it.
The employer should then have the prescribed first-aid provisions in place. Where applicable, first aid should be applied on site. If the injury is serious, the employer should notify the emergency services, or take the injured employee to a clinic or hospital.
Where applicable, the employer must then immediately report the incident to the DoL. In the case of a fatality, the South African Police Services must also be notified.
How can employees instil knowledge and awareness about workplace safety to their workers?
The employer should use a combination of communication methods, as people respond differently to various forms of communication. Formal training, informal training, written work instructions, safety signs, toolbox talks, safety posters, corporate newsletters, social media messages, tutorials and other methods, all have a role in instilling such knowledge and awareness.