Over 59,000 work-related fatalities and 4 million non-fatal accidents occur across the African continent each year according to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) statistics on occupational health and safety (OHS).
While some progress is discernible in addressing this, Africa has some catching up to do if it is to retain investor confidence and so achieve its growth imperatives and enhanced levels of industrialisation.
South Africa is still by far the most regulated country in Africa from an OHS perspective, but other countries, especially in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), are establishing and improving their implementation of OHS laws, practices and enforcement systems.
Health and Safety: background
Contrary to the commonly held view, the focus on health and safety in Africa is not a recent effort. Early health and safety improvement initiatives on the continent merit attention. Nigeria was the first country to host a seminar on Occupational Health for Developing Countries in Africa in 1968. In 2000 there was the World Health Organisation and ILO joint effort on OHS in Africa.
In 2005, Benin hosted a global meeting to review OHS in Africa. Despite this, OHS has not been positioned top on Africa’s developmental agenda. Instead the focus has exclusively been on accelerating the growth, productivity and profitability of struggling economies.
Also, many of the countries’ regulatory and enforcement institutions have not been sufficiently equipped to deal with OHS issues, owing mainly to a lack of resources and historical administrative challenges. The current economic activities on the continent have however brought Africa’s health and safety record under the spotlight and countries need to act decisively to put the right processes and procedures in place to mitigate such emerging risks.
It has recently been highlighted by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) that Africa has undergone fundamental economic changes, largely due to foreign investment, over the last decade. This has in turn increased the demand for the construction of infrastructural services including energy, transportation, information and communications technology, water supply and urban infrastructure.
Two interrelated factors are now impelling African governments to invest in OHS practices: the infrastructure development boom and the growing importance of foreign direct investment.
Pressure from investors
We are increasingly seeing, in particular, foreign investors insisting on OHS compliance in accordance with international standards as a prerequisite for investment in construction and engineering projects on the continent.
No investor will allow investment in countries or regions where non-compliance with OHS may have detrimental legal implications and financial losses, which affect projects in the form of costly early retirements, loss of skilled staff, absenteeism, and payment of high insurance premiums due to work-related accidents and diseases. Investors are looking to develop the continent in a responsible and sustainable manner conducive to trade.
Consequently, we are seeing a lot more focus across Africa on developing systems in accordance with international standards for OHS management practices, employee training and reporting. Strengthening Africa’s economic competitiveness requires the creation of a safe working environment for investment.
Adopting international standards
Secondly, SADC member states who have ratified some of the ILO’s conventions on OHS have also adopted its standards into their domestic OHS legal and regulatory frameworks. The ILO standards provide essential tools for governments, employers and workers to establish OHS practices and promote maximum safety at work.
Some of the greatest OHS challenges that countries face are inadequate enforcement, a lack of OHS data and poor reporting systems. As a result, under-reporting of occupational incidents is common, although with the continual ratification of the ILO conventions and implementation of its standards indications are that reporting levels are slowly improving.
Plan of action
This is in part due the ILO’s adoption of the Plan of Action (2010-2016) to achieve the widespread ratification and effective implementation of OHS standards globally. A recent ILO report titled Global estimates of occupational accidents and work-related illnesses 2014 states that noticeably more labour force data has been forthcoming from countries in Africa and pointing to more reliable accident and fatality estimates than before.
Some SADC countries such as Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania have (like South Africa) enacted specific legislation, which exclusively addresses OHS. Others such as Lesotho, Seychelles, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Mauritius and Namibia have incorporated OHS provisions into their labour legislation to supplement their specific OHS legislation.
What’s more, as infrastructure investment accelerates, we will see the effectiveness of OHS laws and systems that African countries are putting in place being put to the test. It is one thing to pass a law, but another altogether to implement and enforce it. Implementation is where the focus has to be for governments and investors alike.
This article first appeared on ESI-Africa.com