South Africa continues to have a high injury-on-duty rate despite its advanced occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation and regulations, and adoption of best international practices, says industry body South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (Saiosh) president Sanjay Munnoo.
“South Africa’s health and safety statistics are disproportionally higher than those of First World countries.”
With the local economy in crisis, significant pressure has been inadvertently imposed on the country’s working conditions, including the management of OHS, he tells Engineering News.
In July, credit ratings and research company FitchRatings rated South Africa’s debt at BB+, a notch below investment grade, with a negative outlook.
To cope with the tough business environment, companies may be tempted to reduce expenditure on health and safety, notably personal protective equipment (PPE), owing to minimal profit margins.
Increased competitiveness and reduced profits also result in elevated injury rates when companies work to tight deadlines and cut corners to complete jobs on time and within budget.
Munnoo emphasises that business leaders should be aware of the disadvantages associated with aggressive health and safety cost-cutting plans, as the implications of poor health and safety can have a “catastrophic impact” on the sustainability of a business.
Academics also suggest that the financial hardship and the mental stress of potential job loss during an economic recession are likely to increase the risk of ill health and even mortality.
“South Africa has large numbers of workers in many industrial sectors who are inadequately protected from workplace hazards,” stresses Munnoo, noting that the youth or unskilled workers are more likely to work in high-risk occupations.
The enforcement of OHS regulations in South Africa is also usually perceived as reactive, he tells Engineering News.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Health, only about 11% to 18% of private-sector employers, excluding mines, provide workplace-based health services, with larger employers more likely to provide these services.
However, reliable statistics are available only for South Africa’s construction and mining industries, with statistics on the accident rates of other industries limited.
Although there has been great emphasis on and progress in reducing workplace injuries locally, “sadly, work-related deaths, owing to disease, have increased steadily over the past 29 years in South Africa”, adds Munnoo.
United Nations agency the International Labour Organisation estimates that four out of five deaths are caused by work-related diseases.
In addition, Munnoo believes that local industries need to focus on mental health.
Some case studies on workplace accidents that resulted in serious injuries or fatalities have clear signs of deliberate self-inflicted harm, while people with mental disorders experience disproportionately higher rates of disability and mortality, he points out.
“For example, those diagnosed with major depression and schizophrenia have a 40% to 60% greater chance of dying prematurely than the general population, owing to suicide and physical health problems, such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, which are often left unattended.”
Employee health and safety in the workplace must remain top priority, Munnoo says.
“There is often a push to achieve zero harm in the workplace, but the question is whether this is possible considering the complexities and varying risks associated with different industries.”
The Department of Employment and Labour (DEL) is on the verge of employing 500 OHS inspectors as it broadens its scope of work by also focusing on small, medium-sized and microenterprises (SMMEs) and the informal sector, says DEL chief inspector Tibor Szana.
This is in line with the proposed amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) that will hopefully send a stronger message that noncompliance with health and safety regulations, and contraventions may result in greater penalties and/or prosecution.
At the Saiosh Health and Safety Conference last year, Szana highlighted that regulations needed to cover a much wider range of businesses.
“We needed to address SMMEs, the informal sector and township businesses. They form a big component of the economy and the same rules need to apply.”
Munnoo states that greater attention to health and safety by SMMEs is needed, as these businesses lack the available funding and, thereby, the resources to implement safety and health initiatives and interventions.
“There is also less time and energy available for noncore tasks, which health and safety management is sometimes perceived to be,” he adds.
The amendments to the OHSA are intended to develop OHS into a fully fledged industry, with a major drive towards recognising the benefits of professional registration in regulations, says Munnoo.
The Act also aims to align South Africa’s OHS laws with international standards.
The Act will place stricter requirements on employers in terms of following OHS regulations. This will include the development of new risk-management plans and taking all the measures required to ensure that companies comply with these plans. There will also be harsher penalties for companies that do not comply with the regulations.
Cabinet approved the submission of the OHS Act to Parliament in May last year, and the Act is expected to be passed into law.