The Department of Labour announced it has started conducting its own investigations into recent two major incidents that led to the deaths of workers.
Department of Labour Director-General, Thobile Lamati, told the Media at an Open Day event discussing a wide range of issues in Pretoria on 13 September, that those incidents which caused the injury and deaths of workers require the setting up of Section 32 inquiries.
Lamati lashed out at employers who fail to comply with the Occupational Health & Safety Act, saying that “there is no workplace that should be prone to incidents. That is why we [the department] subscribe to a ‘zero harm’ strategy. The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) of 1993 put specific responsibility on people managing establishments to adhere to health and safety in the workplaces”.
He said the amended OHS Bill proposes among others that workers can run away from unsafe workplaces without being victimised, companies regularly share statistics of fatalities, and that fines are made more punitive. Lamati said inspectors would also be empowered to issue spot fines. He also said that the current law (OHSAct) is a weakness allowing for meagre fines to be imposed. He told the media that companies with deep pockets budgeted for these fines.
The new Bill has been awaited for the past 2 years, and to date there seem to be no indication when it will be debated in Parliament or released for public comment.
The recently reported major fatal incidents that will be subjected to investigations are the blast which took place at Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) site at Macassar in the Western Cape where an explosion at munitions plant led to the deaths of eight workers on 03 September 2018 and the incident on 5 September at the Bank of Lisbon building that burnt down in Johannesburg, resulting in the deaths of three fire fighters and the injury of eight other people. The building houses the departments of Health, Human Settlements, and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.
“The sites of the two fatal incidents have now been handed to the Department of Labour for investigation. It is still early days to pronounce and conclude what happened,” Lamati said but claims that “all these incidents were preventable”.
According to Lamati, the current legislation puts an emphasis on self-regulation. He said every workplace should have safety committees, and that people who serve in these committees should be competent.
Section 19 of the Act however does not provide for every workplace to have these committees and only employers with more than 50 employees are required to establish these committees and the competence of the persons serving on it is not prescribed in the regulations, but is determined through a workplace consultation process.
Regarding the Johannesburg building, Lamati reiterated that the Department inspected 10 storeys of the building in 2017 after receiving complaints that employees were exposed to dust and hazards because of work and refurbishments done. He said inspectors issued a prohibition notice which was later revoked after concerns raised were addressed. Lamati said the vision of Department of Labour was to ensure that all government buildings are safe and there would be no “holy cows” when it comes to adherence to health and safety. He disclosed that a number of buildings, including those used by the Department of Labour, have in the past been closed down for not complying with OHS. Among Department of Labour office closed by its own inspectors have been Labour Centres in Johannesburg and Durban.
Some of the other buildings closed and/or issued with prohibition notices recently included army barracks, detective labs, SAPS in Kwa-Thema, SA Post Office offices, Department of Justice offices, a TUT building, a Government Complex in Mpumalanga and the offices of Home Affairs in Lydenburg.
“We constantly have to work with the Department of Public Works as landlord of most of these buildings. We have previously taken a stance that government will not subject its employees to bad working conditions. Every employer (public and private) has a responsibility to ensure healthy and safe working environments. We cannot accept the excuse that there is no money,” he said.
The Construction Regulations puts a duty on the owner of a structure (which includes a building) to have it inspected annually to ensure it is safe for continued occupancy. This regulation is however not enforced at all despite claims that there are not enough inspectors or money. The Bank of Lisbon incident was a direct result of this poor state of law enforcement or “zero harm” strategy.
Political “zero harm will” lacking
Lamati said the Department had challenges in terms of growing the number of inspectors. He said the Department relied on the goodwill of employers and social partners to ensure compliance with labour laws.
Despite this, there do however seem to be lack of political will from government to address the countless issues of the current OHS regime. Whilst the Minimum Wage Bill and Labour relations have dominated parliamentary attention, little seems to give workplace safety and the Amended OHS Act the same.
The DOL has previously been wrapped over the knuckles for poor performance and despite its recent performance rating of 80% which Ms Nolukholo Sigaba, Chief Director: Planning, Monitoring & Evaluation Unit in the Department of Labour presented at a Departmental Executive Committee meeting held in Pretoria.
She said that the improved performance was attributable to the dedication of staff and management. An elated Lamati was encouraged by the improved performance of the Department of Labour in general and Public Employment Services (PES) branch in particular albeit the challenges posed by a sluggish economy and high levels of youth unemployment in the country, saying that “The Department is pulling out all the stops to register on its database employment opportunities and to facilitate the placement of work seekers with employers, particularly the unemployed youth.”
No mention was made of the Chief Inspector, Tibor Szana’s Inspection & Enforcement section on OHS performance and contrary to Lamati’s recent statement on the challenges of growing the number of inspectors, Sigaba claimed that some of the factors that led to the performance turnaround has been an increase in the number of inspections of workplaces for compliance with labour laws despite the fact that the number of inspectors has relatively remained the same. This had seen a sharp increase in the number of cases of non-compliant employers that has been referred to court.
Sigaba did not disclose which contraventions resulted in these court cases.
OHS at a low priority?
In 2009, the ILO issued a report to the DOL in order to assist them in improving service delivery. At the time the DOL only had 88 inspectors for OHS to cover the entire country, while they had 860 inspectors (almost 10 times more) to cover Basic Conditions of Employment and Labour relations.