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Workplace safety

Pardon me for digressing from the series on waste, but a recent announcement by the Minister of Labour and Social Security caught my attention.

The said the Government would finally promulgate the Occupational and Health at Work Act, passed in Parliament in 2005, in January 2013. This announcement was met with a sigh of relief by practitioners in the field, but at the same time also greeted with skepticism and wonderment, as to if it would really happen.

On the other hand, it is hoped that the announcement would have sent ripples throughout the business community who now would be faced with the daunting tasking of achieving compliance with the regulations contained in the act in a short time, even if Government grants a “grace period”.

One of the fundamental components of the act is the establishment of Safety and Health committees in the work place. Comments made by participants at seminars that I attended have always centred on how these committees should be structured and what their roles, functions, and responsibilities should be or would be based on the job functions of the various employees of the companies.

This issue of committee function and structure invokes much discussion, with participants continually seeking guidance and clarification on how effective these committees will be in a workplace, where a safety and health culture has not yet gained a foothold in the workplace.

Let us take a closer look OSH committees and their roles and functions as this will be a fundamental area of OSH in the work place. The act sets out several very specific functions for joint committees. They add up to an overall objective of identifying and evaluating hazards and recommending action on health and safety issues. Most of these functions, powers, and duties relate directly to the three major tasks of identifying, assessing, and recommending action to control health and safety hazards.

A few others deal specifically with committee procedures. To provide a better understanding of the purpose and application of the act, the descriptions in the following sections are presented in plain language. The act should be consulted for the exact wording, and when precise interpretations are needed.

The health and safety committee is an essential part of the internal responsibility system providing a forum where employer and worker representatives can act together to identify, assess, and control health and safety hazards. To do its job, the committee needs the full commitment of all workplace parties to the spirit as-well-as to the letter of the law. It is especially important that the employer’s health and safety policy and programmes recognise a key role for the OSH.

The committee conducts meetings, inspects the workplace, participates and makes recommendations in developing health and safety programmes, and communicates with both workers and management. The committee provides an opportunity for those affected by health and safety hazards to use their first-hand knowledge of the workplace to identify hazards and make recommendations to control them.

An OSH committee is not a substitute for enforcement of the law, and it does not have to wait for a violation before making recommendations. The committee’s work should emphasise prevention by anticipating problems before they occur. For a health and safety committee to make recommendations, it must first be aware of any hazards in the workplace. For this reason, the act places a broad duty on committees “to identify sources of danger or hazards in the workplace”.

Wide varieties of techniques are involved, including workplace inspections, hazard assessments, monitoring and reviews of written records. Committees are empowered to carry out these activities by a number of rights set-out in the act. In particular, OSH committees have the right to obtain information from employers, and the worker members have the right to designate members to conduct inspections of the workplace.

To successfully carry out its functions and duties, the OSH committee must engage in a number of activities. Although they may be implied by the act and regulations, they are not described there in detail. These committee activities can be grouped into several categories. The employer and the physical facilities of the workplace will be the source of most information required by the OSH committee, for example: access to first aid reports, specifications of the equipment used in the workplace, and material safety data sheets on workplace materials will normally be provided to the OSH by the employer.

Workplace inspection is an OSH function described by the act, but it also involves a great number of activities that are not described there. Useful inspections depend on advance planning by the OSH committee. Careful planning ensures that thorough preparations, including the gathering of background information, are made before the actual inspection is carried out, and that the physical inspection itself is properly conducted. Workplace inspections are described in detail later in this manual. Workers have a duty to report health and safety hazards to their supervisors. Hazard identification is a vital function of OSH committees.

Changes in workplace equipment and procedures may be implemented in response to health and safety recommendations or as a means of increasing efficiency or productivity. Often, the changes may produce improvements in both areas of concern. Either type of change may also create unintended new hazards. Careful assessments of new and changed methods by everyone concerned, including the OSH, will help to ensure that unwanted side-effects are avoided or eliminated.

The act provides guidance to OSH committees with respect to accident investigations. Effective accident investigations require special training and committee members conducting such activities will need to be versed in accident investigation, or rely on the skills on trained investigators in the initial stages of OSH Development.

Investigations may involve the incidence of a fatality, a critical injury, or an occupational disease. Investigations usually take place after the damage has been done. Nonetheless, a thorough investigation is a vital stage in preventing further harm to workers. The causes of accidents or incidents must be analysed and effective preventative measures implemented. Committee members may also participate in the investigation of health and safety incidents. Incidents are unusual occurrences in the workplace that could have resulted in harm to persons or property if circumstances had been slightly different. They are sometimes called “near misses”. Incidents should be investigated because they may reveal causes which could lead to an actual occupational injury or disease.

This closer look at the act centres only on some of the main functions of an OSH committee, including highlighting its responsibility to identify, assess, and recommend ways of eliminating or controlling on the job health and safety hazards. Some of the specific rights and duties associated with each of these functions to be carried out by the committee have also been listed.

It is important that an OSH committee understands that it is provided under the act to receive specific kinds of information from the employer relevant to OSH. Finally, it is important to point out that one of the most effective tools of assistance for committees will be in-house training. OSH committees will be most successful when it receives training to support their activities. And because of their training and acquired experience, committee members will have a special role in all OSH activities in the workplace.

This is not the first time that I have written on this subject, and I assure you that it will not be the last. OSH must be everyone’s concern.

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