Address to the Health & Safety Campaign by Cedric Gina,
Twenty-four year ago and exactly on this day, 177 miners were choked by fumes from foam used to seal bracings in underground mine tunnels. This is after the foam caught fire as a result of an uncontrolled welding operation at Kinross Gold Mine in Mpumalanga. The 16 September 1986 Kinross Disaster was not only South Africa’s worst gold mine accident in history, it reaffirmed to many that the safety and lives of workers were secondary to management’s pursuit for profits. It confirmed how cheap lives of black workers were.
The foam used as a sealant was known to be hazardous and had for years been banned in other countries. Having an uncontrolled welding operation was also against mining regulations. But more criminal was what survivors revealed; the absence of fire extinguishers where the fire broke out. It is no wonder that news of the disaster galvanised the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the newly-established Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to call for a sympathy strike on 01 October 1986.
Unfortunately the disrespect for workers’ lives displayed twenty-four years back, is still with us today. As recent as 24 February 2008, six NUMSA members – Bhekithemba Ndlovu, Isaac Cumisa, Vusi Kubheka, Kanti Mtolo, Nhlanhla Ngcobo and Zibuse Maduna – were killed when a furnace exploded at Assmang Cato Ridge Works in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. Like in Kinross, the employer at Assmang was fully aware of the disastrous consequences of the company’s work practices.
Three days prior to the explosion, Assmang management had commissioned Tenova – a company that specialises in erection and maintenance of furnaces – to do inspection on the company’s furnaces. Tenova did its assignment on 20 Feb 2008 and recommended that furnace No. 5 be switched off as there was a serious structural damage to the furnace. As usual and in its reckless drive for profits, Assmang management ignored the advice of the furnace specialists and continued to operate furnace No.5. The result was a fatal explosion that left six families with no breadwinners.
The total disregard for workers’ lives shown by Assmang management is not isolated in the iron, steel, engineering and metal-related industries. A blitz that Department of Labour (DoL) inspectors carried out in March 2009 in 2 410 iron and steel workplaces throughout South Africa found that 1 171 – a whooping 49% of workplaces visited – were not complying with health and safety regulations. In simple language: close to half of companies that DoL inspectors visited were breaking the laws of the country.
The irony of this breaking of the country’s laws is that the perpetrators are those who are the first to shout about “lawlessness in South Africa”. The tragedy is that with all this blatant disregard of the country’s laws we must still see one employer go to jail for negligence and violation of health and safety legislation.
As NUMSA, we have decided that we can no longer afford to fold our arms as our members are infected, injured and maimed at work through negligence and flagrant violations of existing health and safety regulations. Our National Bargaining Conference held in March 2010 decided that we should launch a campaign to reclaim occupational health and safety as a union issue. The union’s Central Committee approved an amount of R2,69-million as the budget for the first phase of this campaign. For us, enough is enough!
As you are gathered in this workshop, other shosptewards in Bettlehem, Mafeking, Nigel and Ladysmith are undergoing similar training with the aim to inform them about their role to ensure that health and safety regulations are complied with. Between today and the end of October, we hope to reach 6 000 shosptewards through a series workshops and using the manual, DVD and posters that we have produced as the national union.
What then are the objectives of our health & safety campaign?
As a union, we have identified six objectives for our campaign:
Objective 1: Ensure compliance with health & safety regulations
As DoL blitzes reaveal, non-compliance with heath & safety legislation and regulations in the iron and steel industries is rife. A survey conducted in the late 1990s showed that employers took an average of 107 days to report incidents that are supposed to be reported within 7 days. In the same period it was estimated that employers were responsible for 77% of the contraventions to health and safety laws that led to reported accidents.
It is a fact that we also cannot rely only on DoL inspectors for enforcement. The number of inspectors in the Department of Labour is inadequate, which makes proactive enforcement of law impossible. From now on, our shopstewards will monitor and report any violation of health & safety regulations. As NUMSA we do not buy the argument that healthy & safety is a prerogative of health & safety representatives. Section 14(4) (b) of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) gives the shospsteward the right;
to monitor employers’ compliance with the workplace-related provisions of this Act, any law regulating terms and conditions of work, and any collective agreement binding on the employer;
Section 14(4) (c) states that a shopsteward has the right;
to report any alleged contraventions of the workplace-related provisions of this
Act [LRA], any law regulating terms and conditions of employment and any
collective agreements binding on the employer…
For too long employers have blocked our shopstewards from involvement in health & safety arguing that this was the work of health & safety reps. Using the provisions of the LRA cited above, our shopstewards will act as an army of
“health & safety reservists”; monitoring employers’ compliance with health & safety legislation and reporting any alleged contraventions of the law.
Participants in our workshops will leave with a checklist to use in their workplaces to test compliance. If employers refuse to comply, our shopstewards will report such violations to the Department of Labour. We hope that inspectors won’t drag their feet and would respond promptly.
Objective 2: Every NUMSA-organised workplace to have a written and a
union-negotiated health & safety policy.
On 02 September 2005 the Chief Inspector issued a notice to all employers in the iron and steel industry to have written workplace health and safety policies that describe work processes as well as measures to prevent or eliminate hazards on the shopfloor. Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) are meant to sign these policies and a copy must be displayed in the workplace where employees normally report for service.
How many of your workplaces have such policies?
Through this campaign, we are to fight for every NUMSA-organised workplace to have a written and union-negotiated health & safety policy.
Objective 3: Every workplace must have a risk assessment and on-site
The Major Hazard Installation Regulations require employers to develop a risk assessment and on-site emergency plan. Risk assessment is vital for monitoring probable frequency of incidents in a workplace while an on-site emergency plan puts down what should happen in case of an emergency.
Workers who have had a major incident at their workplace will know how vital an on-site emergency plan is. Workers at Kinross Gold Mine had to pay with their lives for the absence of an on-site emergency plan. Every employer after consultation with health & safety committee is supposed to develop a risk assessment at intervals not exceeding five years. According to regulations employers must develop an on-site emergency plan in consultation with a health & safety committee. Such a plan must be reviewed and updated at least once in every three years.
We want these plans to be in place in all workplaces. Where these exist, we want them reviewed.
Objective 4: Negotiations with the union on election, functioning and training
of health & safety representatives
Regulation 6 of the General Administrative Regulations (GAR) gives the union and shopstewards the right to negotiate with employers on election, functioning and training of health & safety representatives. Now, this does not happen in many workplaces. Employers do as they like with hope of having an army of stooge health & safety reps on their side. Through our campaign this practice on the part of employers must stop. Management must negotiate with us on election, functioning and training of health & safety representatives.
Objective 5: No hazardous work for pregnant and breast-feeding employees
Section 26(1) of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) prohibits employers from requiring or permitting pregnant or breast-feeding employees to perform work that is hazardous to them or that of the child. Section 26(2) calls on employers to offer during an employee’s pregnancy and six month after birth, alternative employment to night work and alternative work to any other work that poses danger to the employee and the child.
Similar provisions are found in collective agreements that we have with auto employers, engineering employers and tyre & rubber employers. But how much of these provisions are adhered to in our workplaces?
As a union we are calling for no hazardous work for pregnant and breast-feeding employees. Employers must follow the Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child.
Objective 6: We have a right to access DoL inspectors’ findings
One of the hindrances to the ability of the union to monitor and ensure compliance has been the refusal by DoL inspectors to make available their inspection findings to shopstewards and the union, citing confidentiality. A recent example of this is when we wanted to know the results of the Department of Labour blitz in the iron and steel industry. A Department of Labour official gave NUMSA’s National Occupational Health & Safety Coordinator numbers of how many employers were non-complaint without the names of companies.
We think that this undermines our ability to monitor compliance with the law. We also feel that such a denial is in contravention with the right to information as stipulated in the provisions of Section 32(1) (a) of the Constitution and the provisions of the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000. We are seeking legal opinion on this matter and we hope that things do not get to a point where we will have to slug it out in court with the Department of Labour.
The significance of the campaign:
While primarily the campaign is about saving lives in our industry, we feel that our initiative has broader public policy relevance. Firstly, employers like to say that strikes hurt the economy. But during the early 1990’s twice as many working days were lost due to reported accidents at work compared to the number of days lost due to industrial action. This can’t be good for the economy as not only working days are lost but vital skills disappear through injury, sickness and death.
Secondly, many of the workers who become sick or are injured seek help from the public health system. To us this is nothing else but a way in which employers externalise their costs. Workers are infected and become ill at work which is a private sphere but the costs are borne by the public sector. It is precisely because of this that as NUMSA we are making two further calls:
1. Speedy overhaul of health & safety legislation:
No one will deny that our health & safety laws and regulations need a radical overhaul. Health and safety legislation is fragmented with legislation that deals with prevention/protection separate from the one on compensation. There are poor linkages between diagnostic services, enforcement agencies and the compensation system; resulting in lost opportunities for prevention and promotion activities. Exposure standards in the regulations are also outdated. A good example of this is the discrepancy that exist between South Africa’s manganese occupational exposure limit (OEL) and the one prescribed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO recommends that occupational exposure limits for manganese and its compounds be at 0,2mg/m3.The South African standard is 5mg/m3. Our standard is way above what ILO recommends!
As NUMSA and COSATU we have called for a speedy overhaul of our health & safety legislation and regulations. Interestingly, while new labour laws were introduced after 1994 to restructure the labour market, on the health and safety front we still have apartheid labour laws such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993. This can’t be correct!
2. Accessible occupational health services:
Section 16 of Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA)
makes provision for the establishment of provincial medical advisory panel
clinics. The clinics assist with the diagnosis of individual cases of occupational
diseases and advise the Compensation Commissioner on matters of policy
concerning occupational diseases. These clinics were piloted regionally. There
were three of these clinics; one was situated in KwaZulu-Natal servicing KZN, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga; the other one was in Cape Town rendering services to Western Cape, Northern Cape and Free State and the last one in Johannesburg catering for Gauteng, Limpopo and North West provinces. The clinics were a step in the right direction as they reduced claim turnaround time from 29 months to 3 or 4 months. The clinics had doctors and nurses that specialised and had qualifications in occupational health.
Unfortunately the clinics were closed down without thorough consultation with
labour organisations. Instead of decentralising services, every compensation
claim is now processed and finalised in Pretoria. We call on government to
consider reopening the clinics and if possible to have such a clinic in every
province. For the sake of our lives, don’t only make work safe but also make
occupational health & safety services accessible!
In conclusion, I will be failing in my duties a s a President of Numsa if I do not inform the Honourable Minister that in December 2009, we lost metalworkers in Arcellor Mittal in Newscastle ad some of them were brought it by a labour broker employer. We do not know if they were assisted with all the necessary assistance that a permanently employed workers whom have received. I call on you to proceed with banning of labour brokers with immediate effect because all the good things we want to do here might end up being a pipe dream because of of high levels of precarious work in our industry.
Metalworkers, as you reflect on the centrality of these launch, two days after the historic launch of the Growth path document for Cosatu, think about those miners who perished in Kinross and about the comrades from Assmang in Cato Ridge who died because of greediness of South African bosses.
This is a clarion call:
“All NUMSA shop stewards must be Health and Safety reservists in every workplace in our country”