Workplace health and safety compensation funds Rand Mutual Assurance (RMA), Federated Employer’s Mutual Assurance Company and the Department of Labour Compensation Fund, as well as the Department of Mineral Resources, on Thursday launched the Occupational Disease Prevention Campaign, in Ekurhuleni.
Preventing injuries and workplace diseases will improve the longevity of gainful employment and bolster workplace safety to provide decent work environments, as well as reduce the burden on injured workers’ families and the cost of compensation throughout all sectors, RMA sales and marketing GM Nomfundo Metula said at the launch.
The prevention campaign is in line with international trends, such as the concept of zero harm to workers, which was agreed to by countries including Russia, Germany, South Korea, South Africa and Malaysia, besides others, during the 2017 global health and safety conference, said Labour Deputy Minister Phathekile Holomisa.
The campaign aims to shift workplace safety from compensation towards a prevention-first culture.
“The Vision Zero concept is based on the acceptance that all workplace injuries are preventable and that we can work productively, while causing zero harm,” he said.
The campaign kicked off with a focus on preventing noise-induced hearing loss, which is 100% preventable but constituted 86% of the claims submitted to compensation funds in South Africa.
National Institute of Occupational Health executive director Dr Sophia Kisting – who is also an international health and safety academic luminary – noted that the cost of compensation and the loss of productivity can serve to incentivise the culture of prevention.
“Workplace safety is not about money; it is about mindset. The costs of screening, health surveillance and monitoring systems are significantly less expensive than the costs of injury or workplace diseases, and [such systems] improve the work environment and the impact that employment has on the lives of workers and their families.”
A key focus of the campaign is to create awareness of hazard identification and risk exposure within the work environment, driven by an analysis of what is presented at the claims stage, which is when all existing health and safety measures have failed to protect the worker, she said.
“In addition to creating nationwide awareness of the rise of occupational diseases in the workplace, the programme also aims to help employers in their efforts to educate employees on how to lower their exposure risks, and to assist companies in monitoring the effectiveness of their disease prevention tools and strategies,” said Kisting.
Mineral Resources Deputy Minister Godfrey Oliphant, meanwhile, emphasised the importance of collaboration among workers, employers, worker organisations, compensation funds and government departments to effectively tackle workplace safety.
Surveillance and early detection will have a positive impact and relevant data must be compiled to inform the strategy for occupational disease prevention.
“Prevention is key, since it not only protects the lives and livelihoods of workers and their families, but also their economic and social development,” he said on Thursday.
The establishment of a preventive health and safety culture requires dialogue among the social partners and these continuous engagements will help increase the sharing of knowledge and strengthen capacity to deliver by sharing resources.
The long latency periods of occupational diseases, that sometimes avoid detection over decades, make them more difficult to prevent and, hence, the need for more effective detection and prevention cultures.
Of the 2.34-million work-related deaths reported to the International Labour Organisation in 2017, two-million are as a result of work-related diseases.
There are an estimated 160-million nonfatal work-related disease sufferers in the world, noted Oliphant.
“Establishing a preventive healthy work culture will require increased sharing of knowledge. We must strengthen the national health system’s capacity to effectively support prevention measures. This will require improved collaboration between employers’ organisations, government, workers and social security institutions, such as the compensation funds.
“We also foresee an integration of prevention monitoring processes with the labour inspection programme, especially in hazardous sectors such as mining, construction and agriculture, and a strengthening of employee schemes to gain their support for and involvement in creating a safe workplace culture.”
Data to inform health and safety policies and programmes is one of the main problems facing the National Institute of Occupational Health, noted Kisting.
“We need to collaborate on data, including from employers, healthcare providers and organisations, workers’ organisations and government departments. There are systems that we can put in place to improve the lives of everyone in the workplace.
“But it is essential to analyse data to determine the current protections and deficiencies and engage openly about the data and how we can improve workplace health protection.”
Improving the workplace health protection systems to combat noise-induced hearing loss would help to improve the culture of prevention in all sectors and industries, she explained.