Soldiers may be the primary fighting force of all armies around the world, but keeping them alive is very much the domain of safety and health practice. SHEQ MANAGEMENT takes a look at some challenges faced by the South Africa National Defence Force (SANDF).
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.” These are the famous words in the fifth chapter of Joseph Heller’s 1961 titular classic Catch-22. In short, if you were rational enough to not want to go into a combat situation, it meant that you were, in fact, of sound enough mind to be obliged to go into combat. Captain Yossarian, the bombardier protagonist of the novel, finds himself at constant odds with the famous “catch”, and in it the reader finds a layered representation of a great many things regarding the human condition.
But from a health and safety perspective, Heller’s post-modern classic perhaps unwittingly unveils many of the practical, and non-fictional, challenges faced by health and safety practice in the military today.
Soldiers throughout the world face a more immediate and direct threat to their lives than perhaps any other career in the world. Whereas the dangers of gas, electricity or disease are dispassionate, the key difference with military practice is that the threat is intelligent, deliberate and effective in the execution of its duties. People are deliberately, and with extreme prejudice, trying to utterly destroy you.
Therefore, many of today’s most significant technological breakthroughs, in personal protection equipment (PPE) and health practices, come from the last century’s need to keep soldiers alive. Kevlar, helmets, gas protection equipment, fire-retardant clothing, ambulance services and even the internet can all trace their gestation to the major conflicts of the previous century.
This is where the catch-22 of military practice comes into play. Although all steps are taken to ensure that soldiers are as safe as they can be, combat remains deadly. Whether during conflict or peacetime, however, the implementation of occupational health and safety (OHS) practice is essential.
And yet, OHS in the SANDF remains riddled with various funding and staffing problems.
“To give you an idea of the challenges faced by OHS management in the military,” says Major F.A Grobler of the South African Army, “soldiers are required to wear earplugs to protect their ears from the noise of a fire fight. Once contact with the enemy is made, and a soldier is not wearing ear protection, its implementation is no longer of practical value.”
Held in late August, the SANDF’s annual OHS seminar brought together the military’s dedicated health and safety officers and staff to discuss its difficulties and achievements.
With thousands of citizens currently employed within the SANDF, it dwarfs many of South Africa’s private companies. Considering the diversity within military administration, it becomes apparent that correct health and safety practice throughout the organisation is just as necessary as it is in any other industry in South Africa – if not in fact more so.
Among the issues addressed at this year’s seminar was the very clear lack of sufficient dedicated OHS administrators and practitioners throughout the SANDF. Because of its sheer size, and its rigid chain of command, one of the challenges is that most ranking officials will never see or communicate with anyone who is significantly higher in rank than they are.
Although this enforces discipline it also means that, compared to the OHS-practices of most private companies, in-depth and effective communication throughout the chain of command is sometimes lost.
One real-world example that emerged during the seminar was submitted by Major Ron Tidbury of 43 Brigade. Because of damage to and dilapidation of some of the brigade’s buildings, mobile officers were accommodated in a flight hangar, which had become infested by birds. The resulting bird droppings posed a significant health threat to the officers.
Hypothetically, the correct procedure for remedying such a problem would be lengthy. As an example, Colonel J.J Verreynne notes: “Should a health risk be discovered, the area in which it is found will be flagged for inspection. However, since this discovery was not necessarily made by contracted hazard identification and risk assessment (HIRA) specialists, or OHS-operators for that matter, it must first be reported to one of the five regional OHS centres throughout the country. From this point, either OHS or HIRA personnel are sent to assess the situation to determine what steps need to be taken.”
Add to this rigid chain of command a clear case of OHS understaffing, and one has a range of problems and challenges.
Various other challenges relate to the fact that the SANDF operates on an international scale, meaning that local OHS legislation is not necessarily the same as that of the countries in which our soldiers sometimes find themselves. An example given during the session was that operations with other military forces can be compared to three or four different team sports being played on the same field at the same time.
The SANDF is, however, still diligently marching forward with its implementation of OHS, hiring more OHS-specific staff and furthering training via OHS-centred diploma courses at various universities in South Africa.
Despite the challenges faced in the area of OHS within the SANDF, the organisation remains positive about the execution of its duties. Colonel Verreynne, states: “Considering the factors that limit OHS practice in South Africa, I am nevertheless proud of what we have accomplished so far. Various training regimes for OHS representatives throughout South Africa are being implemented, and we are doing our best to raise OHS awareness, not only in the defence force itself, but also in our homes and communities.”