Occupational health and safety and the importance thereof

Occupational health and safety (OHS) at the workplace is important, not only for maintaining Workers health and wellbeing, but as an enabler for poverty reduction through employment, productivity, and economic efficiency of a country.  Although recognised that work-related accidents and ill-health can be prevented, globally, statistics show an increasing trend in occupational accidents and diseases in enterprises in general and particularly in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).  The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that up to 2.02 million people die every year from work-related diseases, with an additional 160 million people suffering from non-fatal work-related diseases.

In recent years, the application of systems model to OHS, commonly referred to as the Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems (OHSMS) approach, has attracted the attention of enterprises, governments and international organisations, as a promising strategy to harmonise OHS and business requirements, and to ensure more effective participation of workers, in implementing preventive measures for injury to health of workers. OHSMS is a framework that allows an organisation to consistently identify and control its health and safety risks, reduce potential accidents, help achieve compliance with health and safety legislation, and continuously improve its performance.  Studies indicate that workplaces implementing strategies to prevent occupational injuries are associated with lower injury rates in the workplace. Studies reviewed by Robson et al. showed that implementation of OHSMS has positive effects on intermediate outputs (such as better safety culture and increased hazard reporting), and decreases injury rates; and disability-related costs. Robson et al. concluded that “these studies suggest which potential elements of an OHSMS are important by identifying those that are correlated with low injury rates.” Yoon et al. showed that both occupational accidents and fatal accident rates can be significantly reduced by the implementation of OHSMS.

This study reported a 67% reduction in the average accident rate, which was attributed to the implementation of OHSMS, when OHSMS-certified companies were compared with noncertified companies. Further, OHSMS-certified companies not only had lower work-related accident rates but also had a lower annual fatal accident rate of 10.3%. The implementation of OHSMS practices have also been shown to improve productivity, attitude and adherence to organisational rules by employees.  Studies have shown that SMEs, in particular, are characterised by higher rates of accidents and ill health, with accidents being 20% more frequent in small enterprises than in enterprises with more than 100 workers, and 40% more frequent than in enterprises with more than 1 000 workers. Hasle and Limborg support this finding with evidence that there are high accident risks in small enterprises and that exposure to physical and chemical hazards is higher in small enterprises.  Further, information on workplace injuries research shows that SMEs do not routinely keep records of the costs of ill health or accidents.  Quite commonly, small enterprises in particular, are only motivated to fulfil statutory requirements by the threat of punitive action, requiring effective and comprehensive legislation and monitoring implementation.

Glass indicated that, due to the lower likelihood of small enterprises being inspected by government agencies, there are poor environmental conditions, greater hazard levels, and higher injury/illness rates.

The Work and Health in Southern Africa report (WAHSA) stated that, in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), (a) agricultural workers are exposed to heat, pesticides and fertilisers, ergonomic hazards, biological hazards that may result in lung problems and allergy, and machinery and tools that may cause physical injury; (b) industrial workers are exposed to chemicals, noise, dusts that might affect their lungs, mechanical hazards that could result in injury, and ergonomic hazards; and (c) services sector workers are exposed to different hazards, such as biological hazards (tuberculosis and Human Immuno-deficiency Virus) among healthcare workers, office ergonomic hazards, problems with indoor air quality, and transport accidents among transport workers. The WAHSA report further highlighted the lack of information systems in the SADC area, with those that exist described as weak; and the irregular collection of data, with countries mainly relying on ‘passive notification’ whenever there is a workplace accident.

BY Dr Sinah Yamogetswe Seoke and IM Kamungoma-Dada

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice.  Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)