Why do some employers fail to manage occupational health and safety (OHS) risks?

General Colin Powell is a retired United States (US) Army general and former US National Security Advisor. He narrates how on one occasion, during an airborne training session, they were preparing to parachute from a helicopter on a rainy night:

“I yelled for the men to recheck their hookups one last time. Then like a fussy old woman, I started checking each line myself, pushing my way through the crowded bodies, running my hand along the cable and up to each man’s chute. To my alarm, one hook belonging to a sergeant was loose. I shoved the dangling line in his face, and he gasped. It was a triple failure. He was supposed to check it. The jumpmaster was supposed to check it. This man would have stepped out of the door of the helo and dropped like a rock.”

This excerpt from My American Journey, a book by Powell and Joseph E. Persico, left me fascinated! It is a great story that leads us to think of the modern-day workplace. Why are some employers failing to effectively manage safety risks at work?

Policy Statements not Actionable

First and foremost, the policy statements are often not actionable and don’t emphasise the overall OHS objectives, or require a commitment to improving OHS performance within organisations.

The combined commitment and participation of the entire organisation is necessary to create and maintain an effective OHS culture. Every person in the organisation is responsible and accountable for preventing potential incidents.

The South African Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Act, No. 181 of 1993 (OHS Act), section 7; refers to the health and safety policy and reaffirms that the chief inspector may direct any employer in writing, and any category of employers, by notice in the Gazette, to prepare a written policy concerning the protection of the health and safety of his or her employees at work, including a description of the organisation and the arrangements for carrying out and reviewing that policy.

Despite the fact that health and safety is supposed to be a joint effort (as the policy states), the health and safety policy is often not communicated to all employees in such a way that they are aware of their responsibilities, roles and health and safety obligations.

On the other hand, some employers are not alarmed by the potential risks in their work environment. This is due to the fact that the OHS policies are not actionable, nor are they viewed as a platform to which employers can show commitment in the minimising and preventing of ill health and injuries.

Hazard identification and assessment of risks

The ISO 45001:2018 standard recognises that “hazards can include sources with the potential to cause harm or hazardous situations, or circumstances, with the potential for exposure leading to injury and ill health”.

Identifying hazards and assessing risks, putting controls in place and checking they are effectively implemented and maintained, protects the well-being of personnel and property.

Some employers do not use their health and safety policies to influence the selection of people, equipment and materials, the way work is done or how goods and services are provided.

A written statement on the arrangements for implementing and monitoring policy may show that hazards have been identified and risks assessed, eliminated or controlled. However, events causing injuries and illness may also damage property and interrupt production. When some employers do not take this into consideration, they fall short of managing health and safety effectively.

Roles, Responsibility and Authority not defined

The OHS Act requires every employer to provide and maintain (as far as is reasonably practicable) a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of the employees. However, some employers do not clearly define roles, responsibilities and authority of personnel whose functions may influence the OHS performance of their organisations.

In order to ensure an effective management of health and safety at work, organisations must appoint a representative(s) with clearly defined OHS roles, responsibilities and authority. Few companies have dedicated OHS personnel on their sites and OHS functions often fall under any departmental head as directed by top management.

Measurement of OHS Performance

In order for health and safety to succeed, there is need for effective monitoring and measurement of health and safety programmes. In most organisations these systems are not in place, or are insufficient. Many employers tend be more reactive, and are focused on compiling data once incidents or accidents have occurred in the workplace, rather than proactively identifying or preventing them from re-occurring.

There is often no monitoring of the employees’ awareness and knowledge on OHS matters. Employees are not involved in reviewing the adequacy of health and safety procedures and there are no regular updates and forums to discuss OHS information.

With such an approach, employees shun OHS and become demotivated, because they do not see any commitment from their management to provide a safe and conducive work environment that is free from ill-health.

Budgetary Constraints

The costs associated with the establishment of OHS programmes tend to discourage some employers from implementing them.

Despite the fact that employers are required by the law to provide a safe work environment, many employers are failing to manage OHS risks at work effectively.   

About The Author

Hope Mugagga Kiwekete is a managing consultant at the Centre for Enterprise Sustainability. Prior to his current role, he was a principal consultant: risk management at Transnet Freight Rail, and a management systems specialist and senior EHS auditor at the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

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