by Patrick Nabuez Okonkwo, Stellenbosch University
Construction is a difficult, sometimes dangerous job. Globally, the construction industry accounts for about 7% of employment. But it is responsible for between 30% and 40% of all work-related deaths. The figure is the highest in developing countries. This is because the implementing organizations in these countries are usually lacking a safety culture. Health and management systems are also less robust than in developed countries.
This is obviously a huge problem. First, of course, there is the loss of human life. But there is also an economic effect. Accidents disrupt the site. Projects can then be completed behind schedule, resulting in cost overruns. This affects the productivity and reputation of the industry as a whole.
In South Africa, the construction industry represents about 8% of total formal employment and about 17% of total informal employment. It is also the third most dangerous sector for workers after the transport and fishing industries.
In a recent study, I tried to understand why health and safety indicators do not meet the standard in the construction industry in South Africa. I looked at how implementing organizations manage health and safety. I also compared the effectiveness of the various management arrangements. This is important: there is no uniformity in health and safety management programs and practices in the construction industry.
It turns out that health and safety management in the construction industry is not developing at the same pace as in other industries. Moreover, it does not keep up with technological advances such as robotics, 3D printing and data analysis. These innovative technologies are well received by the automotive and manufacturing industries – and reduce employees' exposure to dangerous tasks.
In a country affected by high unemployment and inequality, automation can be a sensitive topic.
Another problem I have found is that the legislation governing health and safety management in the construction industry focuses on individual projects. It does not oblige contractors to implement health and safety management systems nor to maintain these competencies within their organizations in the long term.
One of the problems I identified was how medium and large organizations of entrepreneurs in South Africa manage their own health and safety systems. In some cases, they outsource this work to health and safety management consultants who provide advisory and administrative support. But such arrangements focus on compliance. They do not do much to continuously improve the health and safety of the organization.
In other cases, the safety management is carried out internally through the contractor's own organizational structures. This approach also has many problems. Companies simply do not allocate enough resources to proactively manage health and safety. Reporting mechanisms are few and far between. There is little incentive for employees to engage in health and safety management activities. Health and safety training is also not a priority.
Some of the other problems I identified have to do with the business environment. These include widespread subcontracting practices and price competition. Both have a negative effect on industry safety indicators.
There are critical shortcomings in the management of subcontractors. And the lack of a single basis for increasing the cost of health and safety in tendering for a project means that contractors often have insufficient budget for this key aspect of their work.
The country also does not have enough qualified health and safety professionals registered with the South African Council for the Design and Construction Management profession. This body is legally empowered to regulate the practice of health and safety professionals in the construction industry. Several interviewees have told me that there are simply not enough registered health and safety professionals for the number of ongoing construction projects.
So how can the country's construction industry become a safer place to work?
First, specific policies are needed that will improve the health and safety leadership of senior management, safety professionals and operational executives in the implementing organizations. Policies such as this should provide guidance on the minimum requirement for systematic health and safety management to be voluntarily accepted by contractors. The country can draw from the European Union Framework Directive on occupational health and safety.
There must also be a framework for the whole industry to price health and safety costs. Employers associations such as the South African Federation of Building Developers and the Capital Builders Association should work with industry regulators and client organizations to develop a framework for fair and effective costs for health and safety requirements in tender documents.
Subcontracting organizations should consider the costs of managing health and safety in their main contractors' tariffs. They must also use the services of a full-time health and safety specialist. Studies have found that several functions performed by such internal security professionals promote a safety culture within organizations.
Stakeholders such as the Ministry of Labor, employers' associations, trade unions, tertiary institutions and industry will need to come together to deal with the lack of properly qualified and registered health and safety professionals. These authorities can facilitate the necessary training and accreditation to meet the needs of the construction industry.
Organizations regulating the construction industry and trade unions must also work to limit the number of precarious short-term contracts in the sector.
There is also a lot of work that needs to be done by the main contractors. These organizations should put in place mechanisms to manage the health and safety of their subcontractors more effectively.
Mechanisms like this have two things to do. First, they must comply with the legislation, certified documentation and audits. Second, they must monitor and require proven improvements in health and safety indicators.
Contractor organizations must also have an annual budget that funds proactive health and safety management interventions.
Patrick Nabuese Okonkwo, PhD, Stellenbosch University
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