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What is Occupational Health and Safety?

What is Occupational Health and Safety?

What is occupational health and safety?

The answer may seem obvious, but the field of occupational health and safety is quite complex. In simple terms, though, it relates to everything – laws, regulations, programmes and procedures – to do with ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of people while they are at work.

Companies are required to be law-abiding and comply with the legislation that regulates and enforces the health and safety of their workers. But these days, many companies also recognise that the wellbeing part is as important to keeping their workforce content and productive.

Why is workplace health and safety important?

Again, the answer seems obvious: to protect employees against contracting diseases or becoming ill or disabled because of the work they do. The aim is also to prevent accidents that can lead to injuries and disability – and even death.

The latter may sound extreme, but many workplaces are physically dangerous. Just think of mines where workers perform physically demanding tasks in confined spaces deep underground, or large industrial process plants where they handle hazardous biological agents and chemicals.

The same applies to farms where workers are exposed to pesticides, or construction sites where they work at dizzying heights and with complicated moving machinery. In abattoirs, workers can be exposed to bacteria and diseases potentially carried by the animal carcasses they handle.

All these jobs – and many others – require that special attention be paid to identify and mitigate their inherent hazards and risks. And, through the medical testing and surveillance of their workers, companies must make sure each person is suitable to perform a specific job.

There are many benefits for employers who look after their workers’ health and safety, such as less absenteeism and higher productivity levels. Workers who feel safe, valued and cared for are also more likely to be loyal and less likely to leave.

How can I get buy-in from my employees in terms of health and safety?

Health and safety management plans will only be effective if companies join hands with their employees to ensure adherence and compliance. But to get everyone involved in following the rules can be tricky. Here are some tips to make it easier:

  • Ensure every employee understands the legislation as well as your specific policies and procedures through regular training and follow-up sessions.
  • Ensure every employee understands the risks and consequences of not following the rules – and balance the consequences with incentives to comply.
  • Provide all the relevant equipment that employees need to protect their health and safety, make sure they know how to use it, and regularly inspect and maintain it.
  • Listen to your employees’ concerns and act on them – make them feel protected and empowered.

What are South Africa’s laws in terms of occupational health and safety?

It is very important for all companies in South Africa to stay informed of all the legislation relevant to their operations and employees.

This is especially true in sectors such as mining and construction, which have stringent – and complex – laws and regulations.

But generally speaking, the main law to know in South Africa is the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), which falls under the Department of Labour. This Act regulates workplace health and safety for all workers in the country, except those in mining and shipping, which are subject to their own specific legislation.

The aim of the OHSA is to protect workers against occupational diseases and injuries caused by their exposure to workplace hazards. It is supported by multiple sets of Regulations and Codes of Practice, which give practical guidance on how to manage health and safety issues.

The Act and its Regulations and Codes of Practice clearly sets out the obligations that apply to all employers, in other words companies, in terms of their employees’ health as well as the work environment – their safety.

Among the health-related regulations, there are strict guidelines for the medical surveillance of, for example, asbestos workers and those who handle hazardous biological agents or chemical substances. They clearly set out which workers must undergo fitness-for-work examinations before, during and on termination of their employment.

The safety regulations deal with general health and safety matters – aspects such as personal protective equipment, first aid and emergency procedures and equipment, and the use and storage of flammable liquids. They also address working in confined spaces or elevated positions.

Then there are more general regulations that deal with the facilities where workers perform their jobs, in other words, the physical conditions of the work environment. It deals with issues such as ventilation, precautions against flooding, fire precautions and means of egress.

Fields such as diving, electrical and machinery have their own specific regulations in the Act, and the construction industry too. Mineworkers, though, are protected by the Mine Health and Safety Act, which is enforced by an inspectorate in the Department of Mineral Resources.

Finally, companies must not forget about the Criminal Procedure Act. Certain sections of this Act apply to businesses and can be used to criminally charge a company, its directors and any of its employees should they transgress the health and safety laws and regulations.

The best advice for companies is to ensure they know these laws inside out and stay abreast of any amendments and new regulations as they are adopted. And remember, companies with more than five employees must have a copy of the OHSA and the relevant regulations, or a summary thereof, readily available at the workplace.

Who is responsible for workplace health and safety?

Most people tend to think it is companies’ responsibility to protect their workers, and they are right. After all, section 8 of the OHSA places the onus on employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of their employees.

However, sections 14 and 15 of the Act highlight the duties of employees at work, so it not a one-way street at all. In fact, both the OHSA and the Mine and Health Safety Act make provision for the participation of employees in health and safety matters.

Section 14 deals with the general duties of employees at work, such as taking reasonable care for their own health and safety, as well as those of their co-workers, visitors and even the public. Nothing they do should endanger either themselves or others.

They are also legally bound to comply with all the prescriptions of the OHSA, and they should co-operate with their employer in this regard by obeying lawful orders, as well as all the health and safety rules set down by the employer.

In addition, workers have a legal duty to report any situation which is unsafe or unhealthy as soon as possible or practicable. They can report it to their supervisor, health and safety representative, or directly to the employer.

Section 15 of the OHSA states that employees have a legal duty not to interfere with, damage or misuse things provided for health and safety, as this may cause harm to themselves or others. This includes safety and firefighting equipment and personal protective gear.

Violating the OHSA can result in the person responsible being fined, penalised or even sent to prison, whether it is the boss or the lowliest worker. The Act aims to protect both employer and employee and makes it clear that workplace health and safety is everyone’s business.

A last thought on the OHSA and the Mine Health and Safety Act: Employers tend to think of managing workplace health and safety in terms of their workers only. But the laws can also extend to visitors to a business, or its customers, contractors and suppliers.

For example, any person – employee, contractor, supplier or just visitor – entering certain areas of operation at a chemical plant would have to wear protective clothing and gear. Similarly, some suppliers to a mining company may need medical fitness certificates before they can even go on-site.

That is why companies should develop and maintain comprehensive and integrated health and safety plans that address the specific risks and hazards pertaining to their industry. These plans should include but are not limited to policies, responsibility, training, risk assessment and management, reporting, inspections and record keeping.

What are the consequences of not obeying the laws?

The laws pertaining to occupational health and safety can be complex, but having said that, they must be complied with. Companies that disregard them can face harsh penalties in the form of fines, or even imprisonment for the persons responsible.

On the other hand, if companies take all the reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees, their risk of being penalised for transgressions is much lower. And the same applies to their employees, as they also face penalties or imprisonment for offences as per the OHSA.
Section 38 of the OHSA deals with the offences, penalties and special orders of the court as well as negligent injury offences. It lays down fines of between R50,000 and R100,00 or imprisonment of one or two years – or both. If imprisoned, the person convicted is of course left with a criminal record, which has its own ramifications for the future of that person.
In the Mine Health and Safety Act, section 86A states that persons whose negligent acts or omissions cause serious injury or illness to a person at a mine, or endanger their health and safety, are committing an offence.

Mine owners who are convicted of an offence in terms of this section could be sentenced to the withdrawal or suspension of their permits. They could also face fines of R3-million rand or imprisonment not exceeding five years, or both. Again, a criminal record will have its consequences.

Certain sections of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1971 also apply to businesses and can be used to criminally charge a company, its directors and any of its employees for possible transgressions. They can be prosecuted in their personal capacity or jointly with the company.

And do not think it is just the directors or CEOs who could face prosecution. According to section 332 of the Act 51 of 1971, managers, supervisors and even operators can be prosecuted – the act refers to “any director or servant of that corporate body”.

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