DOL provincial operations chief director Kenny Fick noted the steel sector initiative at an SA Labour Department Inspection and Enforcement Services (IES) chemical safety seminar in Vereeniging on 8 September 2011.
Fick confirmed to a question from SHEQafrica.com that DOL is assisting 300 former employees, and that famous occupational injury and illness lawyer Richard Spoor was ‘already involved’ in a plan to gain compensation from their former employers.
Lawyer Richard Spoor had won several landmark civil suits against certain mining employers on behalf of workers who were ‘compensated too little’ by statutory labour insurance schemes.
Several civil suits against steel sector employers may follow, relying on case law, and arguments that some workers were not registered, or could not claim, or did not receive compensation, or received inordinately small compensation for occupational injuries or diseases from the Department of Labour Compensation Fund (CF), out or proportion with their loss of health, loss of income, and suffering.
“Many injuries and health impacts are not reported and not compensated”, Fick explained. “We (DOL inspectors) are assisting 300 workers who were exposed to occupational disease in incidents and operations some years ago. Some have died, and some incidents or diseases were not reported.”
Haz chem and steel OHH impacts
Occupational injuries and diseases include chemical burns, occupational asthma, allergies, reproductive problems, asphyxiation, irritant dermatitis, allergic dermatitis, cancers of skin, lungs, throat and other organs, chemicals exposure induced hearing loss, noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), tinnitus, nervous system disorders, with some diseases leading to premature death, others to severe impacts on quality of life.
Fick said that many workers in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were not informed, not trained, not provided with PPE, not registered with the Compensation Fund, and many incidents were not reported to authorities.
“Even today, some incidents are not investigated, and some medical surveillance outcomes are not used, or not acted on, mainly becomes some employers fear that revealing occupational disease would cost them money and attract labour inspections. Many employers do not comply with the OHS Act and other Labour legislation.”
Labour minister could use regulations
Fick hinted that recently appointed Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant may use her executive powers to step up legal requirements in the chemicals and steel sectors, to “make regulations that may be necessary or expedient in the interest of health and safety of workers… against risks to health and safety”.
Ministers may use and amend regulations relevant to all workers, or to specific activities or sectors, without going through parliament.
There is usually a long process for amending legislation via advisory structures, so that ministerial action should not come as a surprise to business, Fick explained at the seminar.
OH records not kept, or hidden
DOL occupational health and hygiene (OHH) director Milly Ruiters added at the chemicals section inspection seminar, in response to a question on occupational medical records, that employers using hazardous substances had to keep OHH records for 40 years.
Companies that close down, have to file their OHH records with the DOL. “We have not received any such records, so I must assume that it is general practice for employers to not keep occupational medical records for long, or to not disclose such records.”
Civil NGOs join quest for civil compensation
Several non-government organisations (NGOs) in the environment and health sector attended the DOL seminar. Two civil society organisations told SHEQafrica.com that they were involved in representing some injured and diseased former workers of Samancor in the Vaal industrial area, in efforts to gain compensation payments or occupational medical or hygiene records from former employers.
“One employer told us that OHH records were destroyed by burning and no longer available, yet the same employer later said that they would compare recent medical tests on former employees, with their records. This may imply that their records may have been kept”, said an NGO official.
The statement may also imply that former employers are willing to compare current test results with employment entry or ‘baseline’ tests, or other tests outside the supposedly destroyed records.
Questioned on their funding model, one NGO said they relied on ‘fundraising’. Earthlife Africa officials were among the delegates, one wearing a T shirt with the motto ‘Save your breath, Stop Sasol’.
The trend for civil compensation claims that started with class actions in mining last year, is raising fears among employers in all sectors, including the construction sector, where the statutory occupational injury and diseases insurer, FEM, have held legal sway against civil claims since the 1930s.
CORRECTION 2011 September 12; DOL provincial operations chief director Kenny Fick did not name an employer, and did not warn of civil action, as SHEQafrica.com reported on 2011 September 09. We apologise for the error.
PHOTO; DOL provincial operations chief director Kenny Fick confirmed to SHEQafrica.com that state officials were involved in efforts to gain compensation for 300 former steel workers who were injured or diseased at work.
DISPLAY PHOTO IN TEXT; Earthlife Africa officials were among DOL chemicals safety seminar delegates, one wearing a T shirt with the motto ‘Save your breath, Stop Sasol’. Questioned on their funding model, one NGO said they relied on ‘fundraising’.