Often the neglected stepchild of occupational health and safety (OHS), occupational diseases are a recurring threat for which claims are on the rise. However, due to their latent nature, they are often fraught with complications and high costs. As prevention is better than cure, a new campaign has been launched to drive exactly that.

Rand Mutual Assurance (RMA), the Compensation Fund (CF) and Federated Employers Mutual Assurance (FEM), have combined their collective might and launched the Occupational Diseases Prevention Programme.

Having been gestated towards the end of 2017, and with support from the Department of Labour (DoL) and Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), the campaign aims to create nationwide awareness regarding the rise of occupational diseases. At the same time, it aims to assist South African employers in their efforts to educate employees in managing the risks to which they are exposed, as well as with monitoring the effectiveness of the tools used to reduce the contraction of disease.

It is the first collaboration of its type within the compensation bodies seeking joint solutions, hence adding value to the South African employer. In line with international trends, the prevention programme aims to shift workplace conversations from compensation towards a prevention-first culture in the workplace.

A key focus of the programme is on creating awareness of hazard identification and risk exposure within the work environment, driven by an analysis of what is being presented to the RMA, CF and FEM at claims stage. The idea is to move the conversation from theory to real and practical approaches and interventions.

Opening the launch event, Nomfundo Metula, RMA general manager, sales and marketing, noted that an increase in occupational disease claims has been seen in recent times.

“Compensation entities find no joy in seeing claims go up at the expense of healthy employees – we also want employers to pay lower premiums. To achieve that, we have to drive prevention among employees. But changing behaviour is not a sprint, it’s a marathon and it’s not to be taken lightly.

“Our belief is that what we are launching today will see all stakeholders being able to better manage these occupational diseases,” she said.

The programme will be rolled out nationally during the second half of the year through various educational and intervention workshops that focus on high-impact diseases in order of priority. It will, therefore, be starting with noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which is said to currently be the most prevalent occupational disease.

The focus on NIHL will create awareness of hazard identification and risk exposure within the work environments, and on changing behaviour towards prevention and safety habits in the long term. (See sidebar for more information on NIHL.)

“We have chosen to launch with NIHL because it affects almost every employer in South Africa. There are newer professions, such as call centres, that are starting to see employees presenting with this disease,” Metula added.

However, while the programme will launch with a focus on NIHL, that’s not to say that other occupational diseases are less important… Speaking at the launch, Godfrey Oliphant, Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources, said that each year an estimated 2,34-million people die worldwide from work-related accidents and diseases.

“Of these, the majority, an estimated 2,02-million, die from a wide range of work-related diseases. Of the estimated
6 300 work-related deaths that occur every day, 5 500 are caused by various types of work-related diseases. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) also estimates that 160-million cases of non-fatal work-related diseases occur annually,” he noted.

Using the local mining industry as an example, Oliphant said that between 2016 and 2017 there was a decrease of four percent in the total number of occupational diseases reported. However, there was an increase in NIHL between 2016 and 2017, totalling 1 144 reported cases. Similarly, silicosis increased by 17 cases to 652, although, encouragingly, tuberculous showed a slight decrease.

“Effective prevention requires collaboration at the national level between OHS institutions and employment compensation schemes within social security systems,” he commented.

RMA, CF and FEM envision the long-term effects of this programme will benefit South Africa’s workforce through safer working environments and a better quality of life, as well as reduce absenteeism and production stoppages, Ultimately, it may lower the cost of compensation for employers, since premiums are aligned to the claims experience.    

Deputy Minister of Labour, Phathekile Holomisa, concluded the day’s proceedings: “While in a sense this is the beginning of a journey for us, we must appreciate that the vision and the forecast are in sync with international thinking.

“This is a rallying call to all employers in this country to respect our Constitution, to observe international conventions and protocols, and to affirm human rights and the dignity of all South Africans. This can be done by taking all the necessary steps to prevent occupational hazards, to prevent occupational diseases in our workplaces and to treat our citizens with dignity,” he said.

Judging by the support shown at the launch event, RMA, CF and FEM are well on their way to achieving that.

Why NIHL is a concern

Occupational audiologist Dr Anita Edwards presented on noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and why it is such a pressing occupational disease.

“Worldwide occupational NIHL prevalence ranges from 16 to 24 percent, while the World Health Organisation estimates that occupational NIHL costs approximately 0,2 to two percent of the gross domestic product of developed countries,” she said.

Shockingly, it constitutes 90 percent of all occupational disease claims at RMA!

“The two industries most at risk at the moment are mining and metals. A total of R156 764 577 in benefits has been paid since 2015 to these two industries alone. However, that’s only about R33 000 per worker; an amount with which you can barely buy two hearing aids…” Edwards continued.

There’s no doubt that these stats are worrying, especially since, Edwards says, NIHL is 100-percent preventable.

“Noise over 85 dB does physical damage within the ear. NIHL is permanent and develops slowly over two to ten years, which is part of the problem, as by then it’s too late [to remedy].”

The task then, says Edwards, is to not just comply with legislation, but change the prevalent train of thought to one of prevention.

“NIHL affects quality of life and it is great that we now have the opportunity to positively change that,” she concludes.

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