SA safety culture must change, says Prof

World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April promotes a safety culture to help reduce the number of occupational fatalities, injuries, and diseases.

The date follows the day on which South Africa celebrates the anniversary of its first democratic elections, said construction academic Prof Johan Smallwood, noting that there is no real freedom, security, or human rights until the threat of injury and disease is removed from workplaces.

South African construction continues to receive unfavourable media coverage due to trench collapses, building, deck, and slab collapses, fatalities, injuries, disease, and damage to public property.

South African construction incident statistics indicate the need for a construction health and safety culture change. Construction management focus is still on safety, while health and ergonomic issues receive limited or no attention.

Although there is a need for a paradigm shift from compliance to better practice, including the addressing of primary health issues, there is still the elementary need for basic compliance.

A view of the top of the collapsed slab at Thongathi Mall (Daily Mail UK). The investigation, controversies, and remedies drag on.
A view of the top of the collapsed slab at Thongathi Mall (Daily Mail UK). The investigation, controversies, and remedies drag on.

The construction safety culture wish list

Based upon extensive research, publishing, course, seminar, and workshop development, conference organising, lecturing, community service, and professional registration and association, Prof Smallwood advocates a list of interventions to realise substantial change in South African construction health and safety (H&S):

• Value people as our most important resource.
• Values as a constituent of H&S culture.
• Leadership in terms of H&S.
• Management commitment, participation, and involvement in H&S.
• Multi-stakeholder contributions to H&S – architects, clients, contractors, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, material manufacturers and suppliers, project managers, quantity surveyors, and labour unions.
• Optimum H&S culture, among other, a vision of fatality, injury, and disease free projects, and a goal of zero deviations as opposed to incidents or accidents.
• Comprehensive H&S education and training of all stakeholders (designers included).
• Competence accompanied by, among other, appropriate values and an exacting philosophy – the core competencies (self-image, traits, and motives) differentiate between superior and average performance i.e. at best the surface competencies (knowledge and skills) can only realise average performance.
• Optimum status for H&S – greater than or at least equal to that afforded cost, quality, and time.
• Sound construction management (bona fide as opposed to pseudo) i.e. management of construction by construction managers.
• Integration of design and construction in general, but especially in terms of H&S.
• Implementation of documented quality management systems in design and construction.
• Implementation of documented H&S management systems in design and construction.
• Focus on H&S regardless of circumstances – H&S is a value, not a priority.
• Elimination / Mitigation of ‘excusitis’ (mind deadening thought disease manifested in excuses).
• Consciousness and mindfulness – constant cognising with respect to the surrounding environment, attention relative to H&S, and mindful with respect to the implications of actions or omissions.

Prof Johan Smallwood is the head of the Department of Construction Management, and Programme Director of the MSc Built Environment Programme.

See other posts on his construction health and safety culture research results on

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3 thoughts on “SA safety culture must change, says Prof

  1. Excellent article! “There is no real freedom, security, or human rights until the threat of injury and disease is removed from workplaces,” said Prof John Smallwood. I agree. Safety should be the the hallmark of our total liberation.
    We are still hobbled in chains of servitude. How many South Africans know that 28 April 2015 was World Day for Safety and Health? Or how few?
    Our first task is to remove the veil of ignorance from employers before attempting to instill a safety culture. Safety culture in the fog of ignorance is like harnessing a race horse to a mule.
    Benjamin Franklin captures the question of ignorance poignantly: “He was so brilliant that he could name a horse in eight different languages, yet so ignorant that he bought a cow to ride on.”

  2. I would add one other item to the wonderful wish list Prof!
    Until we have true freedom that enables our workforce to rise above Maslow’s first level at which there is little value to one’s own safety, let alone that of others, we will remain in a situation where a person will work for whatever pittance they can get under whatever conditions their employer requires them to.
    We have some of the best labour laws in the world but our enforcement is pitiful and the Unions seem happy with laissez fair, only complaining after a workplace fatality or serious injury.
    Perhaps we, as H&S Professionals should adopt Cosatu’s slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all”

  3. An injury to one is an injury to all, that is a great slogan for a safety first culture in our construction industry. I agree with Prof when he says there can’t be freedom if employees are subjected to unsafe conditions on a daily basis.

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