Corona virus and criminal gangs threaten health and safety in the construction industry

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Contractors who fail to implement effective health and safety regulations on their construction sites are placing their workers at serious risk, especially in light of the global Coronavirus pandemic and ongoing invasions by armed gangs who threaten violence unless their employment demands are met, says Databuild CEO Morag Evans.

“The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act mandates all employers to provide a safe and healthy environment for their employees, and while South Africa’s OHS legislation is certainly on par with that of the rest of the world, the country’s OHS record tells a dismal story.

“With many construction companies already struggling to stay afloat in the current tough economic climate, the temptation to cut safety corners meet tight project deadlines and budgets is very real. Additionally, the fact that the overloaded and understaffed OHS Inspectorate tends to respond reactively to safety incidents only serves to fuel the ineffective enforcement of OHS rules and regulations.”

This is borne out in statistics released in October 2019 by The Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company (FEM), which reveal that injuries on construction sites increased over the last year. Of the 8384 accidents which occurred during 2018, 65 were fatalities. FEM cited risky construction activities, site and environment conditions as the main contributing factors.

“Legal obligations aside, all employers in the construction industry have a moral responsibility to ensure that construction sites are free from any risk to the health and safety of their employees,” says Evans. “This includes putting measures in place to protect employees from infectious disease and other construction site hazards, as well as providing appropriate security in the event of an attack by criminal business forums, demanding either a stake in the project or cash as ‘protection’ against further violent disruptions and work stoppages.”

“The reality, however, is that many contractors, especially those in the SMME (small, medium and micro-sized enterprises) segment of the market, simply don’t have the capacity or cannot afford the resources required to ensure all the workers at a construction site are working safely and following all the correct safety procedures,” she continues.

“Health and safety is generally perceived to be a non-core task, and therefore less time and money is spent on it, ultimately to the detriment of the workers.”

Evans is hopeful that last year’s announcement by the Department of Employment and Labour to employ an additional 500 OHS inspectors will enable a greater focus on SMMEs and the informal sector.

“While these businesses are integral to the economy, employers need to understand the implication of non-compliance with health and safety regulations – not only in the form of harsher penalties, but more importantly, with regard to the increased exposure of employees to health and safety hazards.

“There’s no getting away from the fact that OHS should be a top priority among all stakeholders in the construction industry, regardless of their size. Contractors who flout health and safety regulations and thus compromise worker safety should be held accountable,” Evans concludes.

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