Let them have sunblock!

Let them eat cake. We’ve all heard this statement, supposedly uttered by Marie Antoinette in the 1700s, repeated time and time again. Well I am about to make a similarly daft comment: let our workers have sunblock!

I guess I need to explain my logic. I am writing this column en route back to South Africa, having just explored the Brazilian health and safety industry. It’s fascinating – readers will receive an insight into this utterly enthralling industry in the next issue of SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

But right now, the meeting that is remaining top of mind is the one I had with a manufacturer of sunscreen. And no, I wasn’t lying on the beach in Rio; I was at a safety exhibition …

I can imagine your confusion: safety and sunblock – huh? Well, this company (I’ll tell you more about it and other leading Brazilian players in the next issue) is making gazillions of Brazilian real – the country’s currency – selling sunblock to companies. These firms believe sunblock is right up there in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE), along with gloves, glasses, ear plugs, safety boots … you know the drill.

I told the directors of the company that I was not aware of any companies within South Africa that were supplying their employees with sunblock (maybe there are some; if so, I would love to hear from them). They reacted in complete and utter amazement: “Isn’t it hot in South Africa? Isn’t your sun as dangerous as ours?” We all know the answers to those two questions.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, it seems South African companies remain in the firing line for ignoring SHEQ-related issues – and not just in terms of supposedly superfluous subjects such as sun damage. I hate picking on the mining industry (there are some world-class companies out there, doing an exceptional job of protecting their workers, the environment and their corporate reputation), but it has to be said that, when it comes to SHEQ-related headlines, the mines are doing a pretty good job of getting attention. Lots of it.

The Marikana disaster will remain an embarrassment for decades – not only within the mining industry but for the country at large. But there are so many other issues that require attention. We have debated and reported on acid mine drainage for ages, and it remains a huge concern.

And now for the “new” issue that’s raising its ugly head – that of mine dust. According to the Bench Marks Foundation*, dust-related lung diseases overshadow mine accidents in terms of the number of affected workers. “It is alarming that the long-term effects of inhalation exposure do not get as much attention or focus as they should,” says John Capel, the foundation’s executive director.

Capel reveals that mines are still under-reporting the health effects of dust. “We therefore welcome the various legal cases that are coming to the aid of the hundreds of thousands of people who are affected by the various diseases related to the exposure of dusts such as silica.

“What is also worrying us is the increase in respiratory problems in communities surrounding the mines. With re-mining occurring throughout South Africa, and the mines using road transport to transport their minerals, there is a marked increase in dust levels.

“We have found that in some areas, such as the Bojanala District in the North West Province, medical staff are increasingly reporting high incidences of respiratory problems among members of the general public. More people are suffering from asthma and lung ailments than before.

“With this in mind, how many more deaths will eventually be attributed to mining in the not too distant future if steps aren’t taken to curb the effects of exposure to these dangerous dusts?” he asks.

We can understand Capel’s concern. Yes, we know that the Department of Environmental Affairs has released its draft National Dust Control Regulations for public comment. But that was on May 27, 2011. The regulations are meant to come into operation “on a date determined by the Minister by notice in the Gazette”. When will this happen? We asked the Department of Environmental Affairs; Albi Modise, chief director of communications, confirmed that the draft regulations had been submitted to the Minister. “They will be gazetted once the Minister has approved them. It is, unfortunately, not possible to predict the date for the regulation to be legislated,” he noted.

Of course, we shouldn’t rely on legislation to stop these deaths. Maybe I am naïve. Or just plain stupid. But I would love to see companies in South Africa adopt a more proactive approach – and instead of waiting for legislation to force them to do the right thing, setting aside just a small portion of their profits to ensure good SHEQ management. It’s the right thing to do.

* The Bench Marks Foundation is an independent non-governmental organisation mandated by churches to monitor the practices of multinational corporations to ensure they respect human rights and protect the environment.

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