Power to health and safety
Occupational health and safety, despite the best efforts of the profession, often take a back seat within organisations – with profit reigning über alles (over everything else). However, as JACO DE KLERK discovers, health and safety considerations don’t just reign supreme within the Vodacom Group, they are infused in everything it does.
The Vodacom Group is a multinational company with over 8 000 base stations throughout the SADC region. “We are unlike a mine or factory, which is confined to a domicile site, as our business is done through our network,” says Lance Louw, head of health and safety.
This adds an inherent road risk to Vodacom’s business. Its employees sometimes have to drive great distances to reach base stations (such as those in the DRC), while contending with poor road conditions (in various African countries), terrible driving habits (such as speeding in South Africa), overloading and people driving under the influence of alcohol and other substances.
The second specific risk Vodacom encounters, this time on its towers, is working at heights. “Fall protection and fall protection plans are essential,” says Louw.
A third factor that adds to Vodacom’s occupational health and safety risk is the amount of work done through suppliers. “A lot of our work is done by suppliers,” says Louw. “There are about three suppliers for every employee we have in our network – so we’ve got a massive extension of our business.”
However, the company has adopted a “cradle-to-grave” approach across all its operations, taking responsibility for all activities connected to the Group. “It doesn’t matter if it is a supplier who does the work, we see it as our work-related activity,” Louw emphasises. “So whether you’re transporting people or equipment, or are an on-site security guard or a transmission guy, if we create work, we see ourselves as responsible for that activity and for creating safe working environments – not only for us, but for our contractors and communities as well.”
It is clear that health and safety is, as Louw so eloquently puts it, ingrained in Vodacom’s code of business ethics. The company didn’t merely take the “legal compliance” approach, but decided to be a catalyst for change. “We operate in both developed and developing economies, but we don’t place these countries in different segments,” explains Louw. “We want to have the same look, feel and level of safety in everything we do, everywhere we do it.”
Vodacom has set itself very high benchmarks, for its own benefit and to raise the bar of health and safety standards throughout the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. “Some countries have very few regulations pertaining to occupational health and safety – sometimes none,” notes Louw. “And because health and safety is linked to our policy and ethical standards, we set a higher minimum requirement for ourselves than that required in any of the countries we operate in.”
This demonstrates just how important health and safety is to Vodacom – so much so that Louw describes these factors as one of the company’s key strategies. “They are integrated in every part of our business,” he says. “We want to create an environment our employees can excel in.”
As testament to this Vodacom has implemented Six Absolute Rules that it enforces stringently.
• That the entire workforce wear seat belts when travelling in, or operating, vehicles (so no-one may be transported on the back of a bakkie);
• That suitable personal protective equipment be worn, and correctly used, at all times as required (for example an attached safety harness and fall protection equipment when working at heights);
• Only competent people may work on electrical equipment and circuits;
• Working under the influence of alcohol or drugs is strictly prohibited;
• That speed limits may not be exceeded, or even adhered to if dangerous for the type of road, vehicle or conditions; and
• That cellphones may not be used while driving without the necessary equipment such as hands-free devices.
Failure to adhere to these rules will result in an investigation and may lead to disciplinary action – which could mean dismissal for Vodacom employees, while contractors could be removed from a site and disqualified from doing any future work for the company.
In the DRC, a seventh rule was introduced: any employee riding a motorcycle must wear a helmet. This shows that while Vodacom is setting universal standards, it tailors its initiatives to its employees’ needs, thus truly caring for their wellbeing.
However, it’s one thing to tell employees what to do and another to lead by example … and the latter is exactly what Vodacom is doing through visible leadership. “We require our leaders to be visible where the actual work is taking place,” says Louw. “We want them to visit our 8 000 sites – and not just visit, but inspect the work that takes place.”
He explains that the company’s management team is required to fulfil two roles during their visits: interact with the staff and review the work. “They have to engage not only with staff, but also suppliers, and see how they are doing health- and safety-wise, and how they are living the Absolute Rules,” he adds.
To achieve this, Vodacom’s management team does a minimum of four safety tours a year where they interact and inspect, with the latter also providing an opportunity to report if things are on track and running smoothly. “They look at both the positive and negative attributes of the sites and employees,” explains Louw.
One might say that this isn’t revolutionary, but the company is going the extra mile and sending its top management team to its sites under the same conditions and using the same modes of transport as employees to truly experience the challenges they face and see if they are working safely.
“By putting communication in the hands of people, we are improving their socioeconomic status,” explains Louw. “In a hierarchy of needs, you can’t improve peoples’ social status if you don’t improve their security and wellbeing – and that is what we are doing by ensuring that they do things in a safe manner.”
By ensuring that its workforce knows what to do, and how to do it, and that its leaders are visible, approachable and accountable for the safety of their employees, Vodacom is setting the groundwork for a brighter health and safety future within the ICT industry.