SA slack on workplace safety

Every so often dramatic scenes of workers suffering the consequences of occupational hazard make it to the headlines. The trapped Chilean and New Zealand mineworkers of 2010; construction workers holding on for life to scaffolding and images of  a mall collapse.

Locally, a recent 2.7 million rand common lawsuit by Thembekile Mankayi, a former mineworker who was able to seek damages, even after qualifying for certain state benefits for occupational disease, captured South Africa's attention. The judgement had significant repercussions throughout the South African workplace. "It is also a costly reminder about the importance of workplace safety to employers, unions and health and safety representatives of the legislation they should be applying in workplaces across the globe," says Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA), a leading business in workplace health and wellness.

In Mankayi's case, he was previously awarded R16,316 compensation in terms of a mining law after claiming he contracted lung disease (silicosis) at work. He then turned to the Constitutional Court to claim further damages under the common law. Mankayi died in February this year, weeks before the Constitutional Court could rule on the matter. His case however, opens the door for injured or ill employees to sue employers for additional, uninsured costs where it can be shown that the employer was negligent. OCSA believes this case could set a precedent not only in mining, but other industry sectors too. But in South Africa, workplaces continue to ignore mandatory actions stemming from the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Legislation is word class but toothless

Despite South Africa's well written and comprehensive legislation on creating healthy and safe working environments, Dr Terry Berelowitz, Medical Director for OCSA believes that many of this country's employees are not as well protected as they should be. His view is that the legislation is toothless - there are no penalties or efficient monitoring in place. The legislation is often ignored, which leaves the country's assets - the working population of about 11 million people - exposed.

A recent article in the UK highlighted that one in 1,000 Britons (101.5 per 100,000) will suffer a major injury in the workplace, according to the Health and Safety Executive annual round-up of data that reported 26,061 major injuries to workers in 2009/2010. While the latest South African statistics are not easily accessible, one can assume that the South African situation would reflect some sobering statistics in our comparatively less compliant environment.

Poor compliance: the downfall of SA's world class safety legislation

Compliance aside, it is eye-opening to note that the general standards of occupational health delivery and occupational medicine in South Africa compare well globally. South Africa is regarded as a country with the expertise to match its peers around the world. "The unprecedented growth that OCSA has experienced in the past five years is indicative of a move by employers to comply with legislation, says Dr Robin George, OCSA's Chief Occupational Medicine Consultant.

But working SA needs to increasingly make use of the services from professional occupational healthcare businesses. "Ironically it is the people who fuel this country's economy - those who work in the high risk areas of agriculture, transport, factories, construction and mines who may not be fully protected. Safety in the workplace extends beyond life-preserving fundamentals to exposure to dusts, gases, fumes and noise. There is yet another level where the South African workforce should be better protected from issues such as bullying, discrimination, stress and ergonomic hazards," says Berelowitz. "On the whole, knowledge of the legislative requirement is sadly lacking and we need more support from the government and the unions to ensure that the codes and practices are applied more vigorously in South Africa." The employer that provides its workers with access to occupational health services not only fulfils the obligations in law but receives dividends by way of a healthier,  better motivated and more productive work force.

Positive trend

"Yes, there are employers who choose to ignore compliance and there are some practitioners who fall short in delivering required standards of excellence. On the whole, we believe from our interaction with global peers that we can be proud of the delivery of occupational health in South Africa," says Berelowitz, who points out that OCSA is the only private nursing education institution accredited for the occupational health diploma. "Occupational health services in South Africa have contributed magnificently to the delivery of primary health care and are an unrecognised agent for the employee in accessing medical care, with the occupational health nurse and doctor often beating down the doors of the state health services on behalf of an ill employee," says Dr Berlowitz. - (Health24, April 2011)


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