- Only 48% of 4 789 employer workplaces inspected were fully compliant with Covid-19 occupational health and safety guidelines.
- Deputy Minister of Employment and Labour Boitumelo Moloi said this challenge was compounded by the limited capacity of the department’s inspectorate.
- Health experts said employers who were proactive in helping employees get vaccines fared better in health and safety.
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Only 48% of employers across the country complied fully with government’s Covid-19 occupational health and safety guidelines aimed at keeping employees safe from the lethal virus. This is according to research announced by the Department of Employment and Labour.
At a webinar held by the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on Tuesday, the department also warned the challenge is compounded by the strained capacity of the department’s inspectors to monitor occupational health and safety at all employers across the country.
The government’s Covid-19 occupational health and safety protocols were signed by the Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi in 2020. These included requirements like adequate ventilation, access to hand sanitiser, masks, and screening procedures to curb the spread of Covid-19 in workplace environments where working remotely was not possible.
Deputy Minister of Employment and Labour Boitumelo Moloi said 52% of workplaces surveyed in the department’s research were not compliant with the standards of Covid-19 occupational health and safety protocols.
“A total of 4 783 inspections have been conducted during the five provincial mega-blitz inspections in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga. Of the 4 789 inspections, 52% of the workplaces were noncompliant and only 48% complied with the Covid-19 direction and other related regulations.
“[This] is an opportunity not only to ensure that there is improved protection of workers from Covid-19 and similar respiratory infections, but also to chart a new way forward in respect of occupational health and safety in the workplace,” said Moloi.
Two and a half years into the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses have adjusted to having the virus as a daily reality of South African life as more businesses put an end to work-from-home solutions to return to the office.
The webinar also served as the launching event for a programme by the Department of Employment and Labour that will introduce virtual surveys and questionnaires for employers to submit, easing pressure on in-person inspections.
Moloi said opportunities to use technology to collect data will assist the department as it conducts inspections and examines the state of occupational health and safety in South African workplaces.
“It aims to show workers and employers that risk assessments will not be difficult to do, but can bring dividends in less absenteeism, more productivity, and improved employer-employee relations,” Moloi said.
Vax remains vital
Epidemiologist Dr Abdool Karim said, “long Covid” was a “new tsunami” of consequences that would remain with South Africa and the world for some time as 10% to 20% of people who contracted the virus experienced long-term health and cognitive challenges.
“This is no longer just a virus infection. This is now a chronic condition that can be debilitating, even if you have had the virus briefly,” said Karim.
Karim said receiving a Covid-19 vaccination is a cornerstone of community and workplace safety, as workplaces chart the way forward in the ongoing pandemic. He said vaccines do well in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, regardless of the variation of the virus contracted.
Informal sector shimmers in training
Professor Rajen Naidoo said despite the steep cost on most informal businesses, the informal sector shows a surprisingly high prevalence of taking up Covid-19 health and safety protocols and training their peers in compliance.
“What we saw was very positive. Workers in the informal sector were able to rally around quite effectively to put in place a range of reforms in the informal sector,” Naidoo said.
Proactive employers the true game-changers
Compensation commissioner at the Department of Health, Dr Barry Kistnasamy, said while there was good progress in the supply of masks and hand sanitiser in workplaces, vaccinations remained a challenge.
He said employees who did not have their vaccination arranged by their employers, especially the poor, found themselves at the mercy of “vaccine apartheid”. He said this was a phenomenon where vaccination services were disproportionately present in some communities and absent in others.
Minerals Council of South Africa head of health Dr Thuthula Balfor said access to vaccines facilitated by employers made a huge difference during the pandemic, although many employers who introduced mandatory vaccination policies have since withdrawn them.
Occupational health practitioner at the National Institute for Occupational Health, Dr Graham Chin, said in due course the institute would conduct research into the impact of work-from-home policies in stemming the spread of Covid-19 through workplace exposure.
“There are many factors beyond the financial resources that need to be considered. Combined models for working from home, working in the workplace, and hybrid, also need to be compared. These are some of the factors that research would need to consider together with productivity issues, mental health issues, etc. Such insights are still being awaited,” he said.
Head of the division for occupational medicine at the University of Cape Town, Professor Mohamed Jeebhay, said the inability of regulators to enforce Covid-19 directives indicated that the inspectorate and regulators needed support in their work. He said this could come in the form of an additional inspector from the health department to further standardise occupational health and safety.
Employment law specialist Siobhan Leyden said engagements at Nedlac were challenging for organised businesses, but that businesses put a lot of thought into balancing lives and preserving livelihoods.
“Our subcommittee in the engagements on the directives and other policies couldn’t have done that without the technical experts that joined us. They should be applauded because they were thrown into the process during the pandemic,” said Leyden.