The Ultimate responsibility for worker Health and Safety

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) were implemented in South Africa in 1994. The OHSA gives workers certain rights and responsibilities in relation to health and safety in the workplace. It also requires the management of an organisation to set up and to develop and implement certain safety measures in the workplace. The OHSA, requires the employer to bring about and maintain, a work environment that is safe and without risk to the health of the workers.

This means that the employer must ensure that the workplace is free of hazardous substances and micro-organisms, articles, equipment, processes, etc. that may cause injury, damage or disease. Where this is not possible, the employer must make workers conversant about these dangers, how they may be prevented, and how to work safely, and provide other protective measures for a safe workplace.

Both employers and employees have a personal responsibility and accountability for workplace health and safety. Employers are responsible for developing safe work practices, providing adequate training, and making employees familiar with hazards in the workplace. Employees on the other hand are responsible to follow the safe work practices, participate in the training and report hazards.

The Act is based on the principle that dangers in the workplace must be addressed by communication and cooperation between the workers and the employer. The workers and the employer must share the responsibility for health and safety in the workplace. Both parties must pro-actively identify dangers and develop control measures to make the workplace safe and to ensure resources are available to address health and safety issues. To ensure that this system works, every worker must know his or her rights and duties as contained in the Act.

Bill Phelps, a seasoned employer-sided labour lawyer, offers the following words of warning to any employer who is reluctant to spend significant resources to address persistent health and safety issues:

“Ignoring employee health and safety complaints are not only morally wrong, it is like ignoring squeaky wheel bearings or brakes on your car…it is likely to lead to an incident of serious damage. In the employment setting this damage could be as subtle as lost productivity from resentful workers, union organizing by workers (properly) trying to find a protector, or a strike by unionized workers who have not found protection any other way.

The employer who is lucky enough to have received feedback from his employees but who does not take corrective measures is authoring his own misfortune and has missed a great opportunity to demonstrate that he cares for his employees…and to avoid an accident.

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