Laying down the law

Laying down the law

With more than R2,7 billion paid out by the Compensation Fund for claims in the five highest-risk sectors in the past year – and with government’s planned clamp-down – companies that ignore regulations pertaining to SHEQ management do so at their peril! JACO DE KLERK reports

Regulations and legislation play an important part in the governance of any country, protecting all against danger, unfair treatment and chaos. One such statutory initiative, protecting the rights of employees and employers alike, is the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).

The Act requires that an employer bring about and maintain, as far as reasonably possible, a work environment that is safe and without risk to the health of any worker. According to South African Labour Guide – a company providing explanations of statutory documents in simple, non-legal terms – this means the employer must ensure that the workplace is free of hazards that could cause injury, damage or disease. Hazards can range from chemicals and micro organisms to, dangerous equipment and so on. Where this isn’t possible, the employer must inform employees of these dangers and how they can be prevented, and provide other protective measures (such as Personal Protective Equipment) for a safe working environment.

However, the Act doesn’t place sole responsibility on the employer for the safety and wellbeing of employees, but rather necessitates that a company and its workforce address threats through sufficient two-way communication and cooperation. OHSA stipulates that both parties must proactively identify and develop control measures to ensure safe and secure working environments.

Even though the Act states that workplace safety is a collaboration between employers and employees, companies still have regulations to adhere to. One such stipulation demands that organisations ensure workers are informed and clearly understand the health and safety hazards of any work being done, and any dangers that tasks, machinery or product (produced, used, stored, handled or transported) may hold. Employees should also be advised about what precautionary measures the company is taking against these dangers, have access to the OHSA, and be informed about the health and safety rules and procedures of the workplace.

The Act also stipulates when health and safety representatives (permanent employees within an organisation who fulfil this additional role) should be elected. The OHSA states that a representative should be appointed within four months of commencement of a business in any workplace that has 20 or more employees. In the case of shops and offices, a representative only needs to be chosen for every 100 workers; for certain other workplaces, such as large factories, one representative should be designated for every 50 employees.

Despite the stipulations set out by the OHSA, a health and safety inspector may force a company to appoint representatives, even if it has fewer than 20 employees. An inspector can also insist that more representatives be appointed, for example, if the layout and working conditions of a factory warrants the designation of more that one representative per 50 employees.

This may, however, change – the Department of Labour (DoL) plans to review the Act by 2013, with a view to stemming workplace casualties in South Africa. The plans were mentioned at the Road to Zero conference held at the Birchwood Hotel and Conference Centre in Boksburg from March 6 to 9 this year.

Conference delegates were also told that more than R2,7 billion was paid by the DoL’s Compensation Fund for the 2010/2011 financial year for workplace-related injuries and diseases sustained in the five high-risk sectors, with:

• Iron and steel accounting for more than R427,5 million;

• Air and road transport incurring more than R363 million;

• Building and construction adding up to around R287 million;

• Agriculture accounting for more than R188 million; and

• The chemical sector amounting to around R105 million.

Jacob Malatse, DoL director for electrical and chemical engineering, said the non-adherence of occupational health and safety laws has a dire cost on the economy. “While our endeavour is to protect vulnerable workers, South Africa continues to be plagued by lack of adherence to occupational health and safety. People continue to die and many succumb to occupational injuries. The loss of work time because of hazards means a loss of income, a decline in GDP and a cost to the country.”

He also emphasised that the DoL has initiated interventions on the policy front. “We will, by end of this month [March 2012], start affecting amendments to the OHSA. We want to ensure that by the end of 2013 the process is complete.” He further stated that there would also be a review of all amendments to regulations as part of the drive to stem hazardous workplaces. In addition to policy interventions, said Malatse, the Department would continue with its work of inspections and blitzes, programmes on advocacy, research and training.

Vic van Vuuren, executive director of East and Southern Africa for International Labour Organisation, said the world has lost the plot when it comes to protecting workers in the workplace, and that profits seem to take precedence. He emphasised that there is a need to move back to morals and values in the workplace.

According to Van Vuuren, the economic crisis has negatively impacted the practice of occupational health and safety since 2008, and with the global economic crisis still experiencing uncertainty, adherence to these practices is expected to suffer even more as a result. He also cautioned that the use of migrant workers has become a global issue. This continued global employment has subjected migrant workers to severe working conditions in the form of dirty, dangerous and demanding working conditions.

It’s clear that legislation does have some pitfalls that need to be straightened out, but employers should always adhere to the rules to avoid a run-in with the relevant authorities, which can lead to fines or even jail time.

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