Globally, an estimated 2.78 million workers die from occupational accidents and work-related diseases, while an additional 374 million workers suffer from non-fatal occupational accidents. This is according to the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. The statistics equate to 7 500 people dying from unsafe and unhealthy work conditions every single day. In terms of high-risk sectors, the construction industry has been identified by the International Labour Organization as having a disproportionately high rate of recorded accidents.

Closer to home, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of all workplace accidents that occur nationally across the various sectors. This is due to South Africa having a large informal workforce, meaning that a vast number of accidents are not reported. Much of the data collected is obtained via insurance claims by employers through workmen’s compensation service providers, providing a snapshot of the country’s dire situation.

The Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company (FEM), a mutual insurer offering workmen’s compensation services for the construction industry in South Africa, recorded 6 157 reported accidents for 2022 alone (as per data extracted as of June 2023). Of these reported incidents, 48 resulted in fatalities and 581 resulted in permanent disability for the victim. Based on claims received for the year, the leading cause of workplace accidents were “struck by” incidents – i.e., accidents where the victim was “struck by” a motor vehicle while working, “struck by” falling items (such as a brick on a construction site); and so forth. In fact, “struck by” accidents comprised a massive 32.3% of the workplace incidents reported to FEM in 2022.

More concerning is that these statistics only account for around 50% of the formal construction workforce in South Africa that FEM insures (with the Compensation Fund as the insurer for the rest of the formal construction workforce). It does not account for accidents in the informal construction sector at all. The question remains, are we doing enough to bring down these excessively high accident rates?

From a legal standpoint, South African legislation includes several acts relating to Occupational Health & Safety (OHS), including the recently amended Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA). While some of these acts are industry specific, they all have one goal in common – ensuring the health and safety of workers through the prevention of occupational injuries and diseases. However, succeeding in reducing – and ideally preventing – workplace accidents is dependent on compliance with legislation by both employers and employees.

Employers need to have the correct health and safety processes in place, and ensure that staff are trained and continually upskilled to uphold strict safety standards. While time and expertise may not always be readily available, there are numerous resources that employers can tap into to keep employees informed and upskilled. There are several professional bodies and associations offering training, seminars and workshops aimed at promoting occupational health and safety that employers can register their staff with.

Employees themselves need to be fully committed to their own health and safety, as well as that of their colleagues. This means taking all necessary precautions, following due process and safety protocols; and being fully aware and focused at work – particularly when it comes to high-risk tasks. And, importantly, all parties concerned must enforce both legislation and best practice when it comes to occupational health and safety – this includes safety officers, management, project leads and employees themselves.

Even where legislation falls short, it is up to management and staff to bridge the gap to ensure organisational health and safety. Commenting on the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Amendment Bill 2020, Advocate Raynard Looch (appointed by SAIOSH to review the Bill) emphasized: “Managers and supervisors are an integral and essential part of an employer’s health and safety management system, and deserve statutory recognition”, (Engineering News). At the end of the day, regardless of legal frameworks, it is employees themselves who suffer the consequences of non-compliance or negligence when it comes to health and safety, and therefore, need to take responsibility within their own departments and workplace surroundings.

Vital to shifting mindsets and positive behaviour when it comes to health and safety are education and awareness campaigns. These include training sessions, roadshows with practical on-site activations, wide-reaching targeted marketing campaigns and industry events. Notably, FEM’s upcoming “Safetember” campaign uses the month of September to raise awareness around occupational health and safety. The campaign includes a Safetember Conference taking place on the 20th of September 2023 in Johannesburg, hosted by FEM, with talks by industry experts, academics, private sector professionals and public sector leaders. Robust discourse around key safety matters is expected during the panel and “thinktank” discussions. The theme of the conference is the “struck by” accident category, with various industry players weighing in on solutions to reduce workplace accidents across all categories. The Cape Town leg of the Safetember conference will take place on the 22nd of September 2023, with the Durban event following closely after on the 29th of September 2023.

An inaugural FEM health and safety publication will also be launched at the conference. The annual publication will provide valuable workplace health and safety insights (with a key focus on the construction industry), and deliver relevant information based on input from industry professionals, safety experts and employees.

While the goal of zero workplace accidents may seem aspirational, it is certainly the goal we should be striving for daily. The reality is that the majority of incidents are, in fact, preventable – it just takes us all working together towards a common objective to see such an outcome achieved.

– By Dr Sanjay Munnoo