Are we serious about safety? I think not!


By Andre Coetzee, managing director of SHEQProf

The past few months had me baffled and I feel I need to share some of my findings. I might step on a few toes in this article and may have several people strongly disagreeing with me, but luckily, we all have a right to our opinion and this article is based on my experience and research.

CoetzeeAndre Coetzee, managing director of SHEQProf.
Image credit: SHEQProf

Coming from a corporate environment and dealing with companies and contractors, I knew the mindset around safety was sometimes challenging. Since taking over SHEQProf, a SHEQ consulting company, I have come to the conclusion that we are in deeper trouble with regard to the attitudetowards safety and safety compliance than I initially could imagine.

It is amazing that in this day and age, most companies I come in contact with blatantly fail to comply with safety legislation and have a blasé attitude towards safety. Now this might be contributed to several factors, one of which could be the lack of adequate enforcement by the relevant enforcement agencies. However, as a company or a manager, one has a moral obligation towards one’s employees over and above one’s legal obligation. This seems to be irrelevant to some companies and managers. How can this be and what does this say about us as a society?

Poor understanding

To be fair, some of the companies are blissfully unaware of their responsibilities and duties. The concerning part is that this is not always due to the lack of commitment … which brings me to another concerning trend I’ve picked up. Companies appoint safety officers or consultants that fail to understand the basics of safety or legal compliance, but fulfil an advisory role within that organisation. How do you advise if you yourself have limited knowledge and experience? I might be stepping on some toes now but if the shoe fits … We are dealing with people’s lives here. As a safety officer or consultant, if that responsibility is less important than the pay cheque, then you are in the wrong profession. Not only do you give the profession a bad name, but you are complicit in any injuries. Sadly, these companies are unaware of the risk exposure to them and their employees when not using skilled and experienced safety professionals.

Some individuals have a major problem with SACPCMP and the registration process. I admit SACPCMP has not covered itself with glory in the handling of the registration process. This may be contributed to several internal and external factors, which I will not go into now. What I do want to highlight is the necessity of having competent safety professionals and that a registration process to assist with this is critical in all industries and not just the construction industry.

Starting off as a new broom, I tried over several months to establish a mentoring programme which would have improved the level of safety officers and managers. Not only would this have improved skills, but it would have, in a small way, created jobs. SACPCMP was quite happy to be involved as well as some prominent construction companies. However, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to meet with the entities (including SETA) to obtain funding, we decided to park this initiative until further notice. It seemed safety training initiatives are not high on the agenda since they would not even answer direct emails.

As part of my postgraduate studies, I researched some statistics with regard to incidents within the construction industry in South Africa. The reason I only used FEMA (Federated Employers’ Mutual Assurance Company) statistics was that they were the easiest to obtain. By no means do I want to focus on the construction industry alone. While analysing the information, I found that on average over the past 16 years, the industry has killed 73 people a year. This is almost the same as the mining industry. But it seems as if it receives a lot less publicity or action from the enforcement agencies. Why is this? Furthermore, FEMA recorded an average of 8 577 incidents a year, of which 450 turned out to be a disabling injury but able to return to work after the recuperation period and 35 that could never work again.

These statistics, staggering as they are, are only the tip of the iceberg and do not include other industries governed by the Occupational Health and Safety Act and managed by the COID (Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases) Act or RMA (Rand Mutual Assurance). The sad fact is that these statistics seem not to be taken seriously as non-compliance, and unsafe organisations are still all around us. The only people who are negatively affected are the poor families of the injured or deceased employees.

Call to action

Do we see more and better enforcement? Unfortunately, no. Do we see prosecutions? Unfortunately, again no. Are companies concerned about the enforcement agencies inspections? It does not seem that way from my experience. How can we, as society, accept this?

I must admit that had it not been for the few companies I have come across that are committed and serious about real safety and not just a tick-box exercise, coupled with the fact that I care, I would have hung up my safety shoes after almost 20 years and ventured into a different field.

I would like to end this little venting session of mine with a challenge to each and every manager and company out there to really take stock and to answer the following three questions honestly:

Remember, each employee is somebody’s son or daughter or somebody’s mother or father and they are only trying to put food on the table. We need to step up safety within the workplace as society. Who knows, the next incident may affect you and then it might be too late.