The Safety Officer dilemma – How to overcome it!

In a recent Q&A session on social media, I asked a group of 4000 safety practitioners where the general duties of safety officers can be found in the OHSAct.

The responses were scary to say the least, and the best one certainly deserves a mention.

“Safety Officer doesn’t have legal duties, safety officer is an advisor.”

Safety Officers are employed by companies to administer their safety management programs. This means they are employees of the employer.

Section 14 of the OHSAct spells out the duties of employees.

I knew they will not get it!

It was a social experiment to show the level of thinking applied in answering a rather mundane question.

As one practitioner who didn’t get it complained,”Learn how to structure questions.”

The problem is that real life scenarios in the workplace do not structure itself to solicit the known response or answer. It often presents itself as a set of unknowns and requires a deeper thought process to get to the bottom of it.

My experiment showed that the majority of those who “answered” the question, tried to justify the role of the safety officer without any liability for their actions.

So, with that in mind, do we really need safety officers in companies? Are they adding value? Or are they just part of a tick-box to get the tenders and BBEEE status we need? And why were the respondents reluctant to admit that Section 14 applies to them?

Let’s take a look!

Section 14 bears the heading of “General duties of employees”. As most safety officers are appointed by management for management, they feel that they are part of management and not the working core. Yet, when you ask any of them in whose interest they act, the majority tells you “the employees”.

On closer examination, the safety officer cannot comply with Section 14 without creating a poor reflection on his/her own performance.

Reasonable care for safety for self and others resulting from own acts or omissions

The acts and omissions of a safety officer have far reaching consequences on the health and safety of others. For example, omitting to perform a safety critical inspection may result in hazards going undetected and eventually kill someone. On the other hand, writing a work procedure, which if followed to the letter, resulting in an accident, is also a criminal offence.

Co-operate to ensure compliance

Co-operating with management is always a mental challenge as most safety officers believe management must co-operate with them. This is in fact not the case. Management carries the ultimate responsibility for compliance and if the safety officer is not part of the decision making faculty of a business, the duty to co-operate lies with the safety officer. If management says no, accept it and move on. This places the safety officer in a state of inner conflict.

Obey and carry out lawful orders, requirements

In most cases the rules and orders relating to safety is issued by the safety officer and endorsed or tacitly authorised by management. More than often the safety officer does not apply these rules and orders themselves, but rely on employees for the performance thereof. Regulatory requirements are used to engage employees in tasks imposed on management, leading to a vast set of letters of appointment to perform certain functions “on behalf of management”.

The safety officer is thus not directly performing the functions appointed for, but creating a pyramid of sub-ordinate “safety officers” called an organogram or “SHE Structure”.

Report unsafe acts and conditions

This is probably the safety officer’s biggest challenge.

How do you report unsafe conditions if you are the responsible person to ensure they do not exist? How do you report an employee performing an unsafe task, if you are responsible for training them in safety behaviour?

Report own accidents

In my 30 years in the safety compliance field, I have not read a single incident report where the safety officer was injured. Not even a near-miss.

Perhaps I missed it, but Google said: “No results found for “safety officer injured in workplace accident”.

Narrowing it down to just “safety officer injured” a few “public safety officers” were involved in accidents, but that’s it.  Are these people really that good?

Whether or not safety officers are perfect examples of how to work safely is an open debate, often countered by complaints that they sit in front of their laptops the entire day and never set foot out on site. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

The point is that they will not report their own accidents as it reflects badly on themselves as advocates of safety. This is a blatant refusal to comply with section 14.

How do employers overcome this to create a “happy safety officer”?

Section 16(2) of the OHSAct provides for the appointment of a person qualified in safety management to perform the functions of the employer imposed by the Act and regulations.

It is the purpose of the Act to protect persons at work and any appointment which may be made, shall serve the purpose of the Act, unless the the Act itself calls for a different appointment.

Employers have generally been accustomed to the use of Section 16(2) to appoint various executives and managers to aid the CEO in the discharge of compliance duties. This often results in the CFO being assigned to ensure safety in Finance & Administration and the Production Manager gets to ensure safety compliance in the factory. Yet, these individuals have their own KPA’s and safety compliance is neither their job nor their occupation. They do not have the underlying understanding of all the “safety” related issues and hence do not focus on safety when issuing instructions or tasks.

The end result is a stand-alone appointment of a lower level safety officer; often at supervisory level judging from the salaries offered.

The Safety Officer then has to convince the “responsible managers” into action, leaving nothing but an endless effort to get things done the right way. Being appointed at a lower level than these managers, disciplinary action against a higher ranking officer in a company only results in future victimisation and being labelled as “not a team player”.

Get it right!

CEO’s and MD’s must use Section 16(2) to appoint a Safety professional at Exco level and have this person report directly to the Directors instead of creating a ‘low-profile” tick-box appointment.

And while the law only permits it now, it should make it compulsory in future; at least for large companies with 200 or more employees.

Rudy_D Maritz
Rudy is an experienced EHS Law advisor and has more than 30 years experience in criminal law, maritime and environmental law. He is an executive partner at Le Roux Maritz & Associates, based in Cape Town.
Rudy is also an Author for and was the Magazine's publisher until April 2018.
He worked for various industries, including law enforcement, fishing, transport, logistics, construction, and telecommunications. For the last 5 years, he has been a facilitator for ECSA accredited CPD training in Construction Contracts & Risk Management.