Our occupational health culture is not well

Mabila Mathebula unpacks some unintended health and safety consequences.

South Africa is not big on occupational health culture and wellness management, indicating an unhealthy, uncaring and reactive paradigm.

Wellness, like Sheq, is the art of holistic management, aimed at high quality products and experience, with the practicable minimum of loss, maximum sustainability, and continuously improving.

A society either moves or stagnates, and stagnation is death. Fifteen years ago I visited Canada at the time when the global media was pathologically obsessed with the challenges of the new Millennium. Remember the Y2K bug?

Last year in Canada I saw a society that had dramatically changed, and more focused on wellness management. They have long been at the forefront of occupational health culture, even before we had dreamt of banning smoking in public places.

Most media coverage now was on vitality age, stabilising blood pressure, cholesterol, preventing stroke, heart disease and diabetics. I attended a peaceful march against genetically modified food in Vancouver with a colleague.

We were impressed with the collective emotional intelligence of the protesters; their event risk, noise and carbon footprints were low, no looting, no litter, their point powerfully made.

There are social problems in Canada, as in any society. Aboriginal people struggle to finish their high school education. Canadian society is highly Asianised, and Canadian Asians are xenophobic towards fellow Asians who speak poor English.

They call them ‘fresh from the boat’, as some South Africans call people from other African countries ‘Amakwerekwere’, but they are all serious about the general quality of life and health.

Canada is big on managing chronic diseases, and thus relieving pressure on their health care system. Their public systems support their occupational health culture.

They offer telemedicine where access to primary health care, doctors and specialists is limited. Telemedicine is almost as good as face-to-face with a doctor.

They provide dispatch units so that a cardiologist, for example, can ask a nurse to place a stethoscope on the patient’s chest through a headset.

Medical quality imaging allows the doctor to examine the patience’s throat or ears, just as if they were in the same room. I wish we had telemedicine technology in South Africa to reach people in rural areas and informal settlements.

We are even failing to manage chronic and preventable diseases such as stroke, TB, HIV, heart disease, cancer, and many more.

The list of occupational health-prone and hygiene-prone industries and jobs in South Africa is long; mining, driving, construction, fishing, agriculture, and even office work! Managers and sheq workers are prone to emotional stress too.

The World Health Organisation said that about 80% of diabetics, stroke and heart attacks, and 40% of cancers, could be averted with lifestyle changes.

According to the USA Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 10% of health depends on access to health care, 20% on genetics, 20% on environmental factors, and 50% on behaviour; eating right, exercise, not smoking, reducing alcohol consumption.

About that ‘50% behaviour’, it is driven in part by occupational health culture. Personal risk tolerance is influenced by occupational risk tolerance. Blue chip industrial employees mow the lawn at home with personal protective equipment (PPE) as a matter of habit.

Black South Africans are catching up on taking charge of their wellness at last. A pharmacy had opened a branch at Park Station, but ‘pill mentality’ is not enough. Health has mental, spiritual, emotional, and a wide range of physical aspects.

As in Sheq, a positive occupational health culture starts with awareness, informal toolbox talks, values about the things we are not prepared to negotiate, patience to await delayed gratification, not trading in short term gain for long term impacts.

It ends with peer pressure and the values adopted by a self-sustaining culture.

Employers can significantly increase workers’ health habits by a range of leadership and management interventions, including information, rostering, exposure monitoring, and targeted medical surveillance.

• Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator. He writes on Sheqafrica.com in his personal capacity.

==== Former editor notes; In response to a comment about the ‘revolutionary’ ideas of Prof Tim Noakes (see below), his ideas actually revert to a lifestyle before food and bevarage became a commodity and branding industry.
Part of the awareness and attitude problem blocking people from taking charge of their own health, is the trust we place in suppliers, and the sweet tooth we (and farmers and bakers) have for wheat. Before the Greeks exported wheat from Turkey and planted it on Sicily, we had better and a greater variety of food. Despite its commercial advantages, it took up to the 1800s before wheat replaced rye and some other crops in Europe, thanks to its greater suitability to industrialised agriculture, marketing, baking, and retail. That does not mean it is good food; it just has a better shelf life.
Many modern health problems are directly due to wheat, and the way we process and re-process it, and use it.

For the benefit of caterers and health services, here is a list of food compatible with all blood types, O, A, B, and AB;

FRUIT: apple, watermelon, peach, fig, guava
VEGG: broccoli, onion, spinach, chard, greenpepper, sweetpotato, beetroot, carrot, [pumpkin, butternut]
MEAT: egg, chicken, ostrich beef, mutton, venison, calf-liver
FISH: trout, sardine, mackerel, hake, shark, canned-salmon
CHEESE: feta, mozzarella, butter
BREAD: pure-rye, rice, millet
CEREAL: oats, pinhead-oats, millet, puffed-rice, barley
PASTA: rice, rye, buckwheat, tapioca (no common durum /semolina pasta)
BEAN: black-eyed, pinto, broad, greenpea
OIL: olive(raw, unheated), linseed, flaxseed
NUT: walnut, almond, hazel, pecan, pumpkinseed
SWEET: sugar, honey, molasses, jelly
JUICE: grape-juice, white-wine, beer
TEA: redbush
VITAMIN: B, K, calcium, iodine, manganese

Sardine, pilchard, salmon, mackerel;
Black-eyed beans, pinto beans, broad-beans, greenpeas, (no cowboy beans)
Fig jam, olive oil,
Spinach, carrot,
Beef-balls, mutton-and-rice, (no bully beef).

Each blood type has a larger variety to choose from. Blood type A has the smallest choice, since it struggles to digest meat, and should opt for fish and ostrich.
Drinks first, then fruit, then food. Take a big breakfast.

-Based on Dr Peter D’Adamo and Catherine Whitney: Eat Right Diet

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Mabila Mathebula

Mabila Mathebula (BA North West University, BA Hon UNISA, MBA Milpark Business School, Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management at Cranefield College), is currently engaged in a PhD study in construction health and safety management.

About the Author

Mabila Mathebula
Mabila Mathebula (BA North West University, BA Hon UNISA, MBA Milpark Business School, Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management at Cranefield College), is currently engaged in a PhD study in construction health and safety management.

10 Comments on "Our occupational health culture is not well"

  1. vincent holloway | 8 January 2015 at 07:34 |

    Thanks for mentioning Genetically Modified Organisms!
    Have you read the book “the meal revolution” – Prof Tim Noakes, Sally-Ann Creed, Jonno Proudfoot and David Grier.
    If this book is accurate, it could significantly improve the health of our nation!

    === Former editor notes; Prof Tim Noakes has the courage to expose the half-truths that some vested parties have been ‘feeding’ the world for decades. His findings are corroborated by independent research involving anthropology and blood groups (Dr Peter D’Adamo et al; Eat right diet [but it is not a diet book]), that he does not mention as far as I know. Enough for OH and Sheq people to know that fat and protein is not bad for all people, that ‘balanced diets’ are not necessarily good for everyone; that much depends on the time and sequence when certain food types are taken; that we tend to mix too many food types together; etc.

  2. Thank you for an insightful article. Such articles rev a nation.

  3. Adrian Woon | 8 January 2015 at 07:55 |

    Excellent article. This aspect is often overlooked. Improved work attendance, a healthy and contented workforce – these are just a couple of the many benefits that can be accrued from focusing on occupational health.

  4. This is a true picture across the globe and not only in South Africa. The reason imainly is that Safety is given more attention than Occupational health and not until we strive to strike the balance, the status quo will be worse than it is.

  5. Dr Cornel Malan | 16 January 2015 at 07:38 |

    Very insightful article! Organisations should really consider including employee wellness as an integral part of their retention strategy, as it will not only ensure healthy and productive employees, less absenteeism due to illness, but also create an environment where employees feel that their interest are taken to heart. a healthy workforce creates a healthy organisation, and even small things such as regular talks on healthy eating, supporting fitness programs, regular medical checks etc, will go a long way towards such.

    ==== Former editor notes; health and wellness are very personal issues, and difficult to manage in a site or group context. Therefore the approach should be via individual health risk assessment. The problem with the reactive approach of medicine and also largley of OH and hygiene, is that general wellness could not be managed or improved after a patient, or a number of workers, present with symptoms and are in symptomatic treatment.
    Health assessment is likewise based on symptoms. Genetic predisposition is testable, but expensive. Regular general checkups is guesswork, and the advice general; ‘Eat, drink, sleep, exercise, take a pill, and call me in the morning.’
    People take great interest in detailed assessments of their personal wellness, but the lab could run 300 tests, and doctors (medical aids) usually run only three. However biofeedback is quick, comprehensive, accurate, and cheap. I have seen the positive effect on people of getting the power of knowledge of their wellness profile, and the empowerment of adjusting their lifestyles accordingly. Their doctors are also empowered to ivnestigate the more critical factors, and some doctors use Scio and similar machines for diagnosis.
    It is like a personal health risk assessment, and baseline. The technology is legally classified as ‘alternative medicine’ under the Allied Health Professions Council, but do not confuse it with the other alternatives (aromatherapy, traditional healing, micro-nutrition supplements, hypnotherapy, and one or two more).
    We have to raise individual awareness and care, to raise social awareness.
    A few employers have tested biofeedback by lining up workers on wellness days, along with the usual sensory tests to raise personal awareness. I would like to hear from them, if and how they measured the results. -Sheqafrica.

  6. Dr Cornel Malan | 16 January 2015 at 12:19 |

    I fully agree with the comments by the editor, regarding raising wellness awareness. If we truly wish to grow our economy, we should also focus on establishing a culture of “continuous human resource maintenance”, which could only be possible if our employees are committed to remaining healthy.
    It might not be possible for employers to arrange and conduct medical assessments for their employees, although some industries do so as they are obliged to do so by law, but by just encouraging employees to go for an annual medical check-up, it could go a long way towards building a culture of wellness self-awareness.

  7. Rudy Maritz | 16 January 2015 at 14:36 |

    In response to Dr Cornel’s comment I agree, but also believe that employers are not properly educated in the difference between health and wellness, on the one side, and health and safety on the other. I am a supporter of the separation of health & safety, as I too believe like many others, that health is medical, and safety is engineering.
    And this is the reason why companies expect “health and safety” people to deal with “health and wellness”. Few companies can employ both a health and safety officer and an occupational health practitioner. The mines are obviously included here.
    We should also admit that SA education does not address health and safety subjects. This supports the opinion that the two disciplines should not be married. Sadly, just because two Acts (OHS Act and MHS Act) lumps the disciplines together, it is practiced as one at levels requiring tertiary education.
    This is a global issue, and it created H&S or even Sheq as a function one person could perform. I think this is a total fallacy. To make matters worse, additional functions like E, Q and R gets added as a cost-saving exercise. One salary pays for four or five jobs, but does it work? I think this article answers that question.

  8. vincent holloway | 2 February 2015 at 10:45 |

    I have a gripe with Labour Brokers /Employment Agencies in terms of CR 2014.
    They just don’t get the concept of “medical certificate of fitness”.
    They expect the employer to do the work that is mandated by law to be performed.
    It seems that they simply with to push a worker into a position and make a mark-up on him/her without rendering the service of ensuring the person is fit and able to perform the task.
    Can anyone recommend a reputable Labour Brokers /Employment Agency in East London?

    • Rudy Maritz | 2 February 2015 at 11:31 |

      Hi Vincent, To some extent, the labour brokers are fully within their rights, as they are not regarded as the Employer in term of the OHS Act. See definition in Section 1 of the Act.
      The ideal is that you as their client could insist on workers with medical certificates as part of your service level agreement. In any event, the cost will be added to your bill, with a possible “mark-up”.
      As the law changed after the agreement has been signed, they are entitled to pass the cost on to you.
      The legal duty to ensure employees (even if provided to you by the labour broker) have valid medical certificates still lies with your company as the “employer”.
      Seeking an alternative might solve the one problem, but may result in other issues such as losing a team that already knows how your company works, rules, inductions, etc.
      Sorry, I know this is not want you want to hear 🙁

      • vincent holloway | 2 February 2015 at 11:46 |

        Thanks for your response, will have to keep looking for a labor broker who can provide this service.

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