By Dr. Sanjay Munnoo
In a world where millions of workers face daily risks on the job, the grim statistics are a stark reminder of the urgent need for comprehensive workplace safety measures. Globally, an estimated 2.78 million workers meet untimely deaths due to occupational accidents and work-related diseases. Additionally, a staggering 374 million workers endure non-fatal occupational accidents. These alarming figures, as reported by the United Nations Global Compact, translate to a harrowing reality: 7,500 individuals lose their lives every day due to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.
The construction industry, in particular, stands out as a high-risk sector, as noted by the International Labour Organization. Its disproportionately high rate of recorded accidents serves as a testament to the pressing need for enhanced safety measures within this field.
However, closer to home, the situation in South Africa presents unique challenges in accurately assessing workplace accidents. The country’s substantial informal workforce means that a significant number of incidents go unreported. The data collected primarily relies on insurance claims submitted by employers through workmen’s compensation service providers, offering only a partial glimpse into the nation’s grim workplace safety landscape.
The Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company [FEM], a mutual insurer specializing in workmen’s compensation services for the South African construction industry, recorded a disturbing 6,157 reported accidents in 2022 alone [according to data as of June 2023]. Out of these incidents, 48 tragically resulted in fatalities, while 581 left victims permanently disabled. Strikingly, the leading cause of workplace accidents was categorized as “struck by” incidents, encompassing accidents where individuals were hit by motor vehicles while working or struck by falling objects like bricks on construction sites. These “struck by” accidents constituted a staggering 32.3% of the workplace incidents reported to FEM in 2022.
What makes these statistics even more concerning is that they only account for approximately 50% of the formal construction workforce in South Africa covered by FEM. This glaring omission leaves out accidents in the informal construction sector entirely, prompting a crucial question: Are current efforts sufficient to reduce these alarmingly high accident rates?
From a legal perspective, South Africa has enacted various acts related to Occupational Health and Safety [OHS], including the recently amended Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act [COIDA]. These acts, while often industry-specific, share a common goal: safeguarding workers’ health and safety by preventing occupational injuries and diseases. However, the effectiveness of these measures hinges on both employers and employees complying with the legislation.
Employers bear the responsibility of implementing robust health and safety processes and ensuring that their staff are adequately trained and continuously upskilled to maintain rigorous safety standards. Despite potential constraints in terms of time and expertise, numerous resources, including professional bodies and associations, offer training, seminars, and workshops aimed at promoting occupational health and safety, allowing employers to keep their workforce informed and prepared.
Equally important is employees’ commitment to their own safety and that of their colleagues. This entails taking all necessary precautions, adhering to safety protocols, and maintaining unwavering focus at work, especially when tackling high-risk tasks. Enforcement of legislation and best practices is a collective responsibility involving safety officers, management, project leads, and employees themselves.
Even when legal frameworks fall short, it falls upon management and staff to bridge the gap and ensure organizational health and safety. Advocate Raynard Looch, appointed by the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health [SAIOSH] to review the Occupational Health and Safety [OHS] Amendment Bill 2020, emphasized the pivotal role of managers and supervisors in an employer’s health and safety management system. Ultimately, it is employees who bear the brunt of non-compliance or negligence in health and safety matters and must take responsibility within their respective departments and workplaces.
To foster a culture of safety and positive behavior, education and awareness campaigns are essential. These campaigns encompass training sessions, roadshows with practical on-site demonstrations, extensive targeted marketing initiatives, and industry events. Notably, FEM’s upcoming “Safetember” campaign, occurring throughout September, seeks to raise awareness around occupational health and safety. The campaign includes a Safetember Conference in Johannesburg on September 20, 2023, featuring talks by industry experts, academics, private sector professionals, and public sector leaders. Robust discussions on key safety topics are expected during panel and thinktank sessions, with a particular focus on the “struck by” accident category. Similar events will be held in Cape Town on September 22, 2023, and Durban on September 29, 2023.
The Safetember campaign also marks the launch of an inaugural FEM health and safety publication. This annual publication will offer valuable insights into workplace health and safety, with a significant emphasis on the construction industry. It will provide relevant information based on input from industry professionals, safety experts, and employees.
While the aspiration of achieving zero workplace accidents may seem ambitious, the reality is that the majority of incidents are preventable. Realizing this goal necessitates collective action, as we all work together towards a common objective: ensuring the safety and well-being of every worker on the job.
Dr. Sanjay Munnoo is the Chief Business Development Officer at The Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company.