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Low level of OH&S compliance still a concern

THERE are many industries that have maintained an impeccable track-record in terms of complying with occupational health and safety (OH&S) legislation. The formal mining sector is a sound example of an industry that continues to adopt a proactive approach to ensure healthy and safe workplaces. These efforts are complemented by the stellar work undertaken by large civil-engineering and building contractors in mitigating injuries and fatalities on their worksites and the world-class Safety, Health, Environment & Quality standards adopted by highly regulated industries.

However, at the same time, there are still many sectors of the economy that are not compliant, exposing themselves to potential liabilities and their workers to risk. “This is despite there being more than 200 pieces of OH&S legislation that are about 20 years old. Many employers are, unfortunately, not interpreting the legislation correctly, resulting in poor risk assessments and, therefore, inadequate controls,” Louise Woodburn, Risk Solutions General Manager of KBC Health & Safety, says. The company has earned a solid reputation for the quality of its risk assessments and compliance training. This includes the pioneering use of digital technologies, such as augmented reality, virtual sessions, WhatsApp and QR codes. In certain instances, these methods have also proved to be a more cost-effective alternative to physical risk assessments and compliance training. The company deployed these technologies long before the lockdowns were implemented to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

The company also recently expanded its offering to include risk solutions for smaller companies that cannot afford to employ permanent seasoned health and safety officers to help inform their OH&S protocol.

A case in point is the many fast-food franchises that need guidance on how to reduce their exposure to liabilities and protect their human resources. KBC Health & Safety provides these services to small, medium and micro businesses on an ad-hoc basis. There is definitely a high demand for them as is demonstrated by the steady growth of the Risk Solutions division since it was launched two years ago. One of the other advantages of this service is that it provides access to OH&S officers who specialise in particular industries. They are, therefore, able to provide a wealth of industry specific knowledge and expertise to help mitigate risk.

However, there are still many smaller companies that are reluctant to invest in ensuring compliance with OH&S. They approach Woodburn’s team to assist them implement a robust OH&S strategy after an incident because they were not proactive in mitigating health and safety risks in their workplace. Without adequate controls in place, it is only a matter of time before an incident occurs in the workplace, she warns.

Woodburn refers to the increase in injuries and fatalities in the construction sector of late which she attributes to the growing number of smaller contractors entering the industry. Among other incidences, workers are falling from heights and inhaling noxious chemicals on worksites. This is because these construction companies have not implemented the correct controls to avoid injuries and fatalities. She is also concerned about the state of compliance of many South African factories where risk mitigation is also mainly reactive as opposed to being proactive. In many instances, these companies are averting incidences by the “skin of their teeth”, and it is only matter of time before the lack of adequate controls catches up with them. By that time, it is too late.

The situation is being exacerbated by a lack of proper enforcement by the authorities, due to limited resources that are mainly being deployed to mining and large construction worksites where there is perceived to be a higher level of health and safety risk. “The weakest link remains implementation of the legislation. This undermines the country’s comprehensive set of OH&S legislation, believed to be among the best in the world. Many companies are, therefore, able to get away with non-compliance for some time, before an incident occurs that can lead to harm or even death, while exposing their business to serious liability,” Woodburn says.

Worryingly, the health aspect of OH&S is often neglected by many companies. This is considering that the effects of unhealthy workplaces and practices, such as hearing loss, cancers, asthma and mental illnesses, are usually only identified over a longer period than injuries and fatalities. People may have changed jobs by the time that they realise that their health has suffered due to their previous work experience. “This is a significant challenge. The mining industry has been trying for many years to establish an up-to-date database of health-related incidences. However, maintaining such a database requires deeper collaboration between different companies and across various industries,” she concludes.

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