Our modern business and economic safety, health, enviro and quality cultural weak point remains in our response to occupational disease.
Twelve years ago at an International Railway Safety conference in Canada, I lamented that most workers and employers fail to learn from mistakes. I quoted from Toon van der Heever’s classical Afrikaans poem; ‘In die Hoeveld, waar dit oop is en die hemel wyd daarbo… waar ‘n mens nog vry kan asemhaal en aan ‘n God kan glo, staan my husie wat ek moes verlaat vir geld… en ek in die gange van die myn hier sit en droom.”
The poem is about a terminally ill miner reminiscing about his healthy past. Why then is this poem still relevant today at thousands of mine workers still suffer silica exposure, pulmonary diseases, silicosis and tuberculosis, leaving them vulnerable to other diseases?
Employers and workers are bound to repeat occupational health exposure, diagnosis and treatment mistakes.
Seventy odd years ago, South African business ethics and sheq management were decidedly deficient, measured against today, yet its requires renewed academic studies in the labour sending areas, and civil court cases to force business, stage departments and labour to look where we could not bear looking, at the plight of.
Occupational health hazards were known even in the days of Toon van den Heever. Miners had dust suppression methods, exposure prevention procedures, and personal protective equipment (PPE), but even with the barrage of laws, regulations, cleaner equipment and high tech PPE of twenty years ago and today, hard rock miners have been, and are sacrificing their health for their dreams of a livelihood.
There were occupational health and safety managers and doctors to diagnose and treat pulmonary diseases, but the reactive approach is as strong today as it was then.
Was there any synergy between health and safety risk responses of employers, state, labour unions and the medical profession? Was the government of the day interested in revenues or the safety of employees?
Workers pay for sins of ancestors
Why are we asking the same questions today that miners, their families, their doctors and investors were asking 70 years ago?
The Bible teaches many things of knowledge and wisdom, among these are that sin is to knowingly do wrong, and that sin is punished sooner, and more often later.
In the first century CE, a large tower in Jerusalem fell, killing 18 people (Luke 13:4). Still many scaffolding and building slab collapses worldwide kill workers and other people. Workplace fatalities are not a new phenomenon, but human culture remains risk prone.
After landmark claims by ill miners, backed by lawyers who have been working to use our bright new legislation for about fifteen years, the Charmer of Mines and labour unions are now at loggerheads over astronomical claims from victims of silicosis.
The court ruled that Thebekile Mankayi; who contracted lung disease while in the employ of Anglo Gold at Vaal Reefs mine from 1979 to 1995, was permitted to sue the company for damages if the employer had failed to provide a safe and healthy work environment.
Statutory, compulsory occupational health insurance had failed to protect many workers in mining and several other sectors, and served to protect employers, investors, and the cornerstone of the national economy, by preventing civil claims. Now there is a hole in that dyke and civil claims could wash open a legal floodgate of claims that could drive investors to other countries where workplace health impacts are either better managed, or better hidden.
Ultimately, African countries are competing in the game of securing the cheapest labour at reasonable skills level, while poorly informed workers themselves need little opportunity to expose themselves to turn health hazards into health risks.
SHEQ practice is fragmented
It takes a mature, assured culture to overcome the impulse of young breadwinners to distinguish between bravery and folly. The fault, however, is not all in collusion of the impulses of investors and workers. State authorities and sheq practice have a lot to answer for.
A number of mines use a reactive approach to manage multiple health and safety risks like dust, noise, mobiles, moving machinery, and complex plant with many energy sources.
Safety, health, hygiene, medical, enviro and quality practice, that should follow a holistic and proactive approach, is regrettably split into six or more areas in research, education, training, practice, registration, legislation, inspection, appointment and audit.
Medicine does not follow the medical adage that ‘prevention is better than cure’, while medical education, practice and insurance is dominated by a pharmaceutical paradigm, the essence of a reactive approach.
Mining employers have to pay up, investors could shrug and walk away, but our state, sheq practice, auditors and medical practice should all be jointly accountable for ill workers.
SHEQ practitioners are trained to be proactive, but the fragmented system, by default and perhaps partly by design, keeps our skills levels and authority levels low.
Some of our functions are reactive, as in incident investigations, but our reports, like most audit reports, suffer a terminal weakness if management, and society, do not act on our recommendations.
Remove the cause first
An axiom in therapeutics teaches that ‘before attempting to cure evil, the cause must be ascertained and removed’.
My occupational health management recommendations:
The SA National Planning Commission should factor in occupational health and safety as a strategic objective. In a diagnostic report, they acknowledge “high disease burden”. Occupational diseases spill over to society and society carries a heavy load. The NPC needs the input of a behavioural sheq specialist.
The medical profession must establish a silicosis life cycle, outlining infancy stage, secondary stage, and tertiary stage, to enable doctors to advise employers what to do at which time in the medical history of patients.
The Department of Labour should enforce compulsory health and safety files, including medical history that is transferred to the next employee. A thorny problem in railway work is hearing loss, one of the occupational diseases that require long term management.
Mines should partner with academic institutions in occupational health and safety research. In Australia fatigue management was once a major research issue and a number of railways partnered with the University of Adelaide to help them in fatigue management.
Workers must take some responsibility. Workers should abandon the ‘Atlas Syndrome’, believing that they alone must solve every problem, placing their own needs last. Workers should take control of their own diet, water intake, rest, dental care, infectious exposure, injury exposure.
Organised labour should cooperate in agreed health and safety management systems.
Emotional blackmail is no solution. Threats and punishment measures from either party would be counter productive.
Our sheq, business and economic weak point remains occupational disease.
• Mabula Mathebula (BA UNW, BA Hon UNISA, MBA MGI, Post Grad Dipl Advanced PM Cranfield) is completing a PhD in Organisational Behaviour at UP. He is a member of PMSA, former member of USA Transport Research Board and SA Railway Association Safety Committee, and managing member of a behavioural safety consultant, Safety Gabs.