Safety is everyone’s responsibility

The Department of Labour’s director of health and hygiene, Milly RuitersThe Department of Labour (DoL) is channelling efforts to promote workplace health and safety as well as injury and disease prevention, ultimately to ensure a better speciality chemicals sector in which to work.

While the Compensation Commissioner’s payout statistics reported an all-time high for government’s 2013/14 financial year, compliance in the chemical industries was as low as 22 per cent. However, the reference to ‘industries’ is broad. 

According to DoL’s director of health and hygiene, Milly Ruiters, the voluntary signing of the Chemical Sector Health and Safety accord by industry associations including the Aerosol Manufacturers’ Association; the Cosmetic, Toiletries and Fragrances Association (CTFA); the Cosmetic Export Council of South Africa; and the Responsible Packaging Management Association among others, shows the greater cosmetics industry’s proactive approach to enhancing health and safety. 

Promoting access to information and training 

‘The response received from industry has been positive,’ she comments. ‘Some smaller companies operating within the chemicals sector weren’t even aware of their responsibilities in terms of occupational health and safety. The Accord and subsequent access to information and training has been a major turning point for these smaller businesses, and a feather in the cap for the department as it maintains its positioning on co-regulation.’ 

Since the Accord was signed on 7 November 2013, an Accord Action Plan was established on 1 April 2014 (to coincide with the start of government’s financial year) and came to an end on 31 March 2015. This included blitz programmes which saw departmental officials heading out into the workplace to perform targeted, unplanned inspections and carry out advocacy sessions to ascertain risks. 

‘These inspections are supplementary to the proactive and reactive inspections of the department which saw officials acting on scheduled appointments, anonymous complaints or when a workplace injury occurred,’ explains Ruiters.

Implementation at organised labour 

The DoL appreciates that information and training are crucial in mitigating workplace health and safety risks. Apart from exposure in industry media and presenting at the CTFA/AMA government day roadshow during August last year, the department also conducted various training sessions with 95 shop stewards from organised labour. 

‘The training included legislation and chemical regulations awareness, understanding the duties of both the employer and employees in reducing injuries and diseases, and key factors of workplace risk assessments and inspections.’   

These shop stewards are then required to take the information back to the unions to be shared with workers. Although the DoL has not yet monitored whether or not the information and training is in fact filtering down, Ruiters says this is next on the list for its 2015 action plan.   

She adds, ‘A task team has also been set up to look into the reporting of incidents within the chemicals sector. This information is gathered from the signatories of the accord and was due end March 2015.’

Important for industry

When it comes to workplace health and safety, employers and employees need to know what is required of them, i.e. their duties in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. ‘Often people are unaware of their duties and responsibilities,’ says Ruiters. ‘This is when non-compliance occurs.’

Another factor of high importance is for employers to carry out risk assessments. This includes identifying hazards, assessing and rating risks and establishing mitigating factors. ‘By not carrying out risk assessments and implementing blanket controls, businesses may find they are overspending on medical surveillance and other control areas,’ she adds. 

Despite the confusion that it is believed external consultants are required for risk assessments, Reuters confirms that, according to the current regulations and the Act, nowhere does it state that a risk assessment must be carried out by an approved inspection authority. ‘Therefore, risk assessments can be done in house provided the assessor has the relevant competencies.’

For highly complex risk assessments, she says it is advised to call on a specialist for assistance but it is not legally required. ‘However, where measurements are concerned, this must be carried out by an approved person.’

Knowledge is power

Information and training are also imperative. ‘Train your employees regularly,’ Ruiters stresses. ‘With new employees, ensure they are fully aware and trained in terms of the hazards and risks of the chemicals to which they are going to be exposed to in the workplace. This includes the properties and how the chemicals may affect their health.’ 

She also advises refreshing employees on control measures on a regular basis like wearing their personal protective equipment correctly and where and how to switch on local extraction fans, for example, to prevent overexposure. ‘As simple as these procedures may seem, they can be forgotten. Furthermore, by knowing a control measure is in place to protect employees, they are more likely to make use of them.’ 

Responsibility doesn’t start and end with employees. It’s equally important for supervisors and management to lead by example and always adhere to safe working procedures.

Medical surveillance is another essential factor. ‘This should be done pre-employment, to establish the person’s health status before commencing employment,’ Ruiters explains. ‘Periodic medical examinations are also vital, and will help in the early detection of diseases. Exit medical examinations are the final step in the process, and equally necessary, to protect both parties should the ex-employee develop an illness at a later stage.’ 

Looking to the US

There is light at the end of what may seem an arduous tunnel for those companies that do comply. The DoL is also looking into implementing the US-based voluntary protection programme (VPP) whereby these employers, under agreement with the department, receive fewer inspections.

Although the VPP idea is in its infancy and yet to be endorsed locally, it could work really well for those businesses committed to worker health and safety. 

According to the United States’ Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website, the VPP promotes effective worksite-based safety and health. ‘In the VPP, management, labour, and OSHA establish cooperative relationships at workplaces that have implemented a comprehensive safety and health management system. Approval into VPP is OSHA’s official recognition of the outstanding efforts of employers and employees which have achieved exemplary occupational safety and health.’

This will also free up the DoL’s resources to focus on those companies and problem areas in need of urgent attention. In practice, once the VPP has been implemented and performance-based criteria established, the DoL will invite businesses to apply, and then assesses applicants against the criteria. 

In the interim, by regularly carrying out risk assessments, environmental monitoring and medical surveillance, businesses operating in the cosmetics industry and specialty chemicals sector can guarantee an excellent occupational health and hygiene programme. Ultimately, government cannot work alone; business and organised labour need to continue in their proactive roles, facilitating change and reducing workplace injuries and diseases. 

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