Self regulation is our sheq backbone

SHEQ practice is acknowledged by state, business, labour and society to be largely a matter of self regulation, but some DOL, DMR and DOH inspectors want to re-invent the health, safety and enviro wheel.

Consider how industry bodies in every sector, voluntary standards like ISO 9001, ISO 14001, OHSAS 1800, RC, BS, most SANS, and corporate sheq practices inspire and reward most large employers, workers and society.

Labour, mining and health inspectors and legislators, however, are set on increasing inspection powers and penalties, partly due to academic reports on static mining occupational disease levels, and major industrial disasters around the world in the last two years.

Close attention to disaster investigation reports offer the insight that levels of enforcement and ‘compliance’ are not among the major contributors to occupational deaths, injuries and disease. Well oiled inspections actually induce well oiled paper work, health and safety window dressing, and worse, soothing of corporate conscience.

Self regulation is effective, our best tool for corporate culture activation, and even serves several industries in improving their collective health and safety climate by contractual pressure and peer pressure.

Chemicals sector employers are particularly noted for supporting their institute, Caia. They host regular Process Safety Forums in Johannesburg and Durban, present guest workshops, develop training courses, and advise universities on health and safety elements to include in engineering curruculi.

The chemicals sector also publishes sheq results annually, and most operators sign up to Responsible Care (RC), internal audits and external audits, while many have also accredited their management systems against the voluntary ISO 14001 environmental impact system standard.

Haz Chem Regulations

Some inspectors do not sufficiently value or understand self regulation. DOL provincial operations chief director Kenny Fick told a chemicals seminar in Vereeniging, in his presentation on Hazardous Chemicals Regulations; “I am not familiar with any self regulatory mechanisms in this sector, and if there are then I do not believe that they are very effective. I sincerely hope I am wrong.”

I thought at first that this surprising statement, duplicated on one of his screen graphics slides, was mere rhetorical irony, or aimed at provoking discussion, but his other slides make it clear that Labour inspectors value ‘compliance’, or letter of law, higher than spirit of  law.

“We cannot allow the chemicals sector to be tainted as non compliant, uncaring or reckless”, said Fick. “It is important that you as compliant employers become active partners in ensuring that the Hazardous Chemical Substance Regulations are fair, sustainable and promotes the concept of self regulation.”

This statement is as contradictory and confusing as DMR using the term ‘audit’ for inspection. What does the state want?

Inspectors know that most legislation and regulation requires endless hours of assistance from organised business by way of wording, harmonisation with other relevant legislation, ironing out contradictions, negotiation and general commitment. DOL acknowledges that it does not have sufficient capacity to render all these services consistently and in the dark corners of small enterprise.

From apparent contradictions in the inspector’s recorded statements, I can only conclude that DOL inspectors, like the DMR and DOH, are cooking up plans to legislate some aspects of self regulation, and would see no irony in such initiatives.

I had asked for clarification of Fick’s vote of no confidence in chemicals industry self regulation, and he explained that self regulation was good in principle, but its application in the chemicals sector could be improved.

This explanation is more cause for concern. If Caia and its RC audits, to which all the major chemicals sector employers subscribe, is not good enough for DOL, what would be good enough?

Legislating self regulation?

This same inspectorate is represented on the Labour minister’s Advisory Council of Occupational Health and Safety, ACOHS. These inspectors agreed with construction representatives that construction health and safety registration should be backed by law, and they remain set on this course, according to a verbal report at a Sashef workshop in November 2011.

That misguided amendment for legislating self regulation, remains stuck in regulatory works after DOL received “an unprecedented number of comments”, but DOL seems set to push ahead with regulating self-regulation.

Such legislation advice and consultation that does occur within DOL structures, often presents more problems than it solves, as evidenced in the attempt to improve the already onerous and flawed Construction Regulations.

Business does not expect legislation review to be plain sailing, and some of its own initiatives are geared to keeping its obligations to a minimum, but business deserves recognition and assistance in growing a well established culture of self regulation.

Save us from statutory self regulation

The chemicals sector and sheq practice deserves to escape negative cultural effects of the kind that other sectors and professions have incurred from legislation, and from their registrars.

Higher Education minister Blade Nzimande’s vote of no confidence in most registrars, is partly to blame on contradictions and impracticalities in legislation. Some ministries and some professions have allowed unwholesome alliances, and some are so patently bad that DHET and Saqa have started fixing them.

DOL could not be expected to be perfect servants to business, since it serves labour and social interests before business interests. Like most sheq practitioners, I support the practice of workers and labour unions reporting employer transgressions to DOL inspectors, and I wish DOL well in its stated efforts to increase its inspection capacity in the next 18 months.

DOL should inspect SMMEs

DOL should not meddle in self regulation at the level of voluntary standards and sectoral bodies like ISO, RC, PSF and registrars, since it has no mandate for rendering education and training functions, and since it is struggling to enforce compliance among small and medium enterprises.

Chemicals institutes in SA, Africa and internationally, admittedly also struggle to get SMMEs on board, but they do use their ‘small sticks’ of preferential procurement, supply chain auditing and competitive sheq product features to whip errant operators into line.

If state Labour, Mining and Health functions were as effective as our brilliant revenue service, very few operators would not dare to cut health and safety corners.

SA state public health service administration, incidentally, is a textbook case of corporate governance collapse and predatory officialdom.

Management, appraisal, accountability, and other elements similar to self regulation are clearly absent by design from the corridors of public health administration.

There are several ironies in labour, mining and health inspectors planning to replace industrial and mining health and safety self regulation with their recipies for inefficiency, outsourcing, empire building and occasional corruption.

We should hold the state to account for performing its proper functions, and convince legislators to leave self regulation uncontaminated by state functions.

SMMEs should be the stamping ground and ‘turf’ of DOL inspectors, while self regulation and complaints driven inspections back up business driven sheq performance among large chemicals employers.

DOL legislators should hot have to wield their ‘big stick’, and if they do, they should take care to not react only to disasters, and to not reduce the quest for best practice to the level of ‘compliance’.

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