Despite comprehensive occupational health and safety legislation, workplace deaths remain high, with occupational diseases often the cause. Companies should take action by educating themselves on the prevention of injuries and diseases.

It is imperative that there is a mindset change towards improving prevention to reduce the current heavy burden of work-related diseases, injuries and deaths in South Africa.

The number of media reports on workplace injuries, deaths and disabilities alert us to the fact that, in spite of good legislation, occupational health and safety (OHS) is in crisis in many South African workplaces.

The high prevalence of occupational diseases hardly ever reaches the media. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that work-related diseases represent the main cause of workplace fatalities globally – almost six times more than occupational accidents.

The ILO 2015 global OHS report estimates that 2,3-million women and men die every year at work from an occupational injury or disease. This highlights the need for a paradigm shift to better prevention, which means a focus not only on occupational injuries, but also on diseases.

Workers in South Africa are exposed to a large number of occupational hazards, which often result in negative health outcomes, including tuberculosis, HIV, occupational lung diseases, skin diseases, reproductive-health issues and hearing loss.

Workplaces could aggravate, cause or be a catalyst of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, work-related stress, mental ill-health and cancer. Occupational and non-occupational diseases can be prevented or managed effectively through workplace programmes that support a healthy, safe and productive workforce.

Many South African workplaces adhere to national and international OHS best practice, but many others do not. In addition, inadequate OHS teaching and training, as well as lack of universal access to occupational health services, impact negatively on health outcomes.

The lack of access to credible data for scientific research (which can demonstrate the power of good OHS) means opportunities to share new knowledge that can prevent diseases and injuries are lost.

The ILO estimates the total cost of occupational accidents and diseases to be approximately four percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) per year or about US$ 2,8 trillion (R39 trillion).

Investing in good OHS reduces both direct and indirect workplace costs. It can also decrease insurance premiums and contribute to improved workplace performance and productivity.

Good OHS practices reduce absenteeism and increase worker morale. The human cost and devastating impact of poor OHS on workers and their families is often impossible to calculate or to quantify.

Gender mainstreaming at workplaces

The National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) Gender, Health and the World of Work Programme (Gender@Work) was launched in 2016 with support from government departments, worker organisations, employer organisations and international agencies. It aims to help mainstream gender concerns in OHS in the world of work.

The NIOH Gender Committee coordinated a participatory gender audit (PGA) in 2015/16. The PGA is globally considered to be a powerful tool for organisational transformation and can help identify organisational strengths and challenges towards gender integration.

The role of PGAs is particularly important in the context of the Global Development Agenda and the South African commitment to deliver on the 17 sustainable development goals put forward in the Key Performance Indicator (KPI).

technology to strengthen workplace OHS

Advances in technology are contributing significantly to improved global OHS practice. These include developments in engineering devices, personal protective equipment and more efficient ways of managing diseases and injuries.

The NIOH, in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, has implemented the Occupational Health and Safety Information System (OHASIS). 

Where implemented in workplaces in South Africa and beyond, the system has demonstrated significant, positive impacts on the practice of OHS. It is hoped that OHASIS will greatly enhance OHS practice in the public and the private sector in Africa and will assist with more-effective compliance with OHS legislation.

The Global Development Agenda (GDA)

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations (UN) in September 2015, are a set of universally applicable goals that balance different dimensions of sustainable development.

They apply to all countries and are intended to promote human rights, greater equality and more peaceful and inclusive societies. They are also intended to create decent and sustainable jobs and address the enormous environmental challenges – of which climate change constitutes a significant part.

In the world of work, the SDGs provide us with a significant opportunity to aspire more determinedly to reach the goal of decent work and firmly integrate OHS into our development agenda.

The appropriate control of workplace hazards will benefit the health of workers, while also protecting the environment, communities and children in particular.

The aspirational SDGs provide incentives to workplaces to implement gender-inclusive programmes in OHS (within all industrial sectors and the informal economy) and facilitate sustainable economic growth. SDG number eight calls for the promotion of inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work.

This enables South Africa to find inclusive processes to help address, among others, the challenge of our heavy burden of disease. Countries have to report on the 17 goals through various KPIs.

All workplace role players should consider joining the NIOH and its multi-disciplinary teams to be champions for excellent OHS practice and to use workplaces more optimally to help South Africa achieve the aspirational SDGs by 2030.

About The Author

Dr. Sophia Kisting is an occupational medicine specialist with extensive clinical and preventive occupational health and safety experience at the national, regional and global level. She is the executive director of the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) in South Africa. She was the head of the ILO’s global programme on HIV/Aids and the World of Work for several years. Her clinical and academic service includes more than five years at Baragwaneth Hospital, the Soweto Community Health Centres and the School of Public Health at UCT for 12 years. In 2017 she was awarded the UCT President of the Convocation medal in recognition of having made “a significant contribution to the common good”.

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