The rise of employee rights
The research and regulation of occupational safety and health are a relatively recent phenomenon. As labour movements arose in response to worker concerns in the wake of the industrial revolution, worker’s health entered consideration as a labour-related issue.
In 1833, HM Factory Inspectorate was formed in the United Kingdom with a remit to inspect factories and ensure the prevention of injury to child textile workers.
In 1840 a Royal Commission published its findings on the state of conditions for the workers of the mining industry that documented the appallingly dangerous environment that they had to work in and the high frequency of accidents. The commission sparked public outrage, which resulted in the Mines Act of 1842. The act set up an inspectorate for mines and collieries, which resulted in many prosecutions and safety improvements. By 1850, inspectors were able to enter and inspect premises at their discretion.
The first social insurance legislation was inaugurated in 1883 and the first worker’s compensation law in 1884 – the first of its kind in the Western world. Similar acts followed in other countries, partly in response to labour unrest.
South African context
South Africa has a world-renowned constitution with ground-breaking laws to protect the rights of employees and their employers. In SA, Occupational health and safety (OSH) is an area concerned with the safety, health and welfare of people engaged in work or employment.
A key area of Occupational Health and Safety is the management of workplace hazards. These hazards are identified by doing an Occupational Health Risk Assessment and could include chemical, ergonomical, biological, physical and psychosocial risks. A medical surveillance programme will then be developed and implemented based upon the identified risks.
Specific occupational safety and health risk factors vary depending on the specific sector and industry. Construction workers might be particularly at risk of falls, for instance, whereas fishermen might be particularly at risk of drowning. The fishing, aviation, metalworking, agriculture, mining and transportation industries are among some of the more dangerous for workers. Similarly psychosocial risks such as workplace violence are more pronounced in certain occupational groups such as health care employees, correctional officers and teachers.
A thorough understanding of workplace hazards, the legislative requirements coupled with the support of a qualified team of Occupational Health Practitioners are the basis for the successful management of workplace health and safety related issues.