Safety award or safety joke?

A recent factory visit has made me question the proliferation of health and safety accolades in South Africa. Are they worth the paper on which they are printed?

I am wondering about the authenticity and relevance of these awards, because of the pretty shocking health and safety levels that I recently witnessed first hand. I experienced this within a plant that I toured, which produces huge, heavy industrial equipment – in a noisy and potentially hazardous factory.

About 100 workers scurry about the plant, from one station to the next, busily assembling the equipment. There is, of course, a proper production line in place, with various stations. I expected to see these stations populated by workers using proper personal protective equipment (PPE). But not so!

There wasn’t an earplug in sight – or any other form of hearing protection. And, as I said, the plant was very noisy. A normal conversation was impossible.

There was no eye protection in sight (excuse the pun) either. Absolutely nothing. Not one single pair of safety glasses graced the noses of the workers.

Safety boots? Of course not. The workers were wearing regular shoes. Hard hats? I saw two in the entire factory.

But what really freaked me out were the workers who were pulling or pushing extremely heavy pieces of equipment from one station on the production line to the next. I am talking about extremely heavy equipment! The guys were huffing and puffing, straining their muscles, as they did this job. I would imagine that every single worker engaged in this duty has terrible back problems. If they don’t suffer from this ailment yet, they soon will.

I pointed this out to the gentleman giving me the tour. He shrugged before mentioning that the company was attempting to avoid the use of forklift trucks within the factory “for safety reasons”. I queried this, not fully comprehending the logic. “We feel that the forklifts are too dangerous within the plant, because there is such limited space here. The aisles are extremely narrow,” he explained.

My next question was obvious: so how will you move all the metal that is currently being transported by the forklifts? “We are building trolleys that the staff can push to the various production stations,” he related. I cringed, imagining more workers, huffing and puffing away like a steam train …

There are, of course, some positive stories at this plant … such as its recycling initiatives and a wellness programme. However, as I made my way back to reception, I could not help but conclude that the company had a very, very long way to go when it came to implementing acceptable levels of health and safety.

You can imagine my shock, therefore, when I noticed a 2013 health and safety award, proudly displayed in the reception area! To make it worse, the certificate had been issued by a large, well-known company within our industry!

This has really made me question the proliferation of safety awards, certificates and accolades out there. Yes, I am well aware that some companies are doing a truly sensational job of auditing health and safety standards within the workplace … and then rewarding top achievers via certification processes. But clearly others aren’t, because the certificate in that company’s reception area had as much value as used loo paper.

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