Making change work safely

Making change work safely

Leighton Bennett – safety, health, environment and risk management consultant and committee member of the Safety First Association – discusses the health and safety issues of changing an employee’s job.

I was asked an interesting question related to an incident that highlighted the issue of health and safety when changing an employee’s job description.

A delivery vehicle had a driver and an assistant. The assistant’s job was to climb up onto a ten-metre-high hopper to open the lid for product delivery. The company decided to change the operation to have a driver doing both job functions going forward.

The driver was then found to be employing and paying an assistant to perform the elevated work task of opening the hopper lid on his behalf, as he was afraid of heights. In doing so, he was breaking a company rule by having a non-employee travelling in (and climbing up onto the top of) the vehicle, and was thereby giving rise to vicarious liability risks for the company.

This raises the issue of how often employee job descriptions are changed without any consideration for the possible health and safety issues and exposures the job change causes. In most cases, job restructuring, downsizing, and so on, result in employees having an additional workload thrust upon them, especially with staff reductions occurring.

When I was in industry, we had a near-miss situation where a recently promoted employee was made a machinery greaser. He was required to enter into guarded areas to grease the machinery. The company then discovered that he was an epileptic. Imagine the ramifications of him having a seizure within a guarded machinery area.

The situation now arises whereby it is easy to blame and discipline the employee when, effectively, the company appears not to have done its duty in terms of health and safety. If this non-employee had fallen from a height and died, the Department of Labour would ask questions and would require written proof that the company had complied with its duties in terms of health and safety.

The following questions might be put to the company that decided to change the employment conditions of the employee, who now has to work at heights:

1. Was a risk assessment of the anticipated changes to the employee’s duties performed (Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act section 8 (2c & d))?

2. Was the employee’s new job description, involving the climbing requirement, negotiated and signed off between the parties (a Labour Relations Act/human resources requirement)?

3. Did the company perform working at height medical examinations on the employee for the new climbing job description?

4. Was any safe working practice established and/or safety equipment provided, and was the employee given training in terms of hopper climbing (OHS Act section 8 (2e))?

5. Were the changes to the employee’s job description (involving climbing) discussed by the health and safety committee? If so, what were the committee’s recommendations in this regard?

Should the company not have proof of taking such health and safety issues into consideration, and should such an employee be disciplined or dismissed for taking action to avoid his fear of heights, he is likely to win the case at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), as the company erred on its legal health and safety duty.

What is your company doing about the health and safety issues when job changes are being made?

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SHEQ Management

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