The construction industry accounts for 7% of employment globally. In South Africa the figures are even higher, representing 8% of formal employment and 17% of total informal employment.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of the world’s most dangerous industries.
In South Africa, construction is the third most dangerous sector. Only transportation and fishing claim more lives and cause more injury. The lack of health and safety standards is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Construction Industry Dangers Cost Money and Lives
While it’s true that construction is a universally dangerous industry, accounting for 30-40% of work related injuries across the globe, the figure is often higher in developing countries, where lack of regulation and competition on pricing combine to lead to little in the way of health and safety.
The result is a loss of labour, and ultimately a loss of life. That alone should be enough to encourage a firmer position within top level management. Economic disruption inevitably arises from workplace accidents; as productivity decreases, projects fall behind and costs rise.
Profitability in South Africa’s construction industry has been on the decline since 2009. The industry is particularly susceptible to decline in times of political and economic turmoil.
The UK, where industry decline has hit decade-long lows, is a perfect example of how current political uncertainty can affect growth.
South Africa has seen similar issues, though the new infrastructure plan is expected to boost the construction industry in coming years. Creating a stronger culture of health and safety in the industry will not only preserve the workforce, but also lead to more profitability as the industry grows.
Health and Safety Concerns In South Africa
A recent study looked into how contractor organisations manage health and safety in South Africa, and compared the effectiveness of different management approaches. The study identified several key issues within the industry.
According to the study, health and safety in South Africa’s construction industry have not developed at the same pace as other industries, specifically with regards to keeping up with new technologies that could potentially save lives, such as robotics, 3D printing and data analytics.
These technologies have already contributed to safer automobile and manufacturing industries. On the flip side, automation is not always the best course of action, especially where unemployment figures are high.
Legislation in South Africa tends to focus on individual projects, so whilst compliance is needed, contractors are not greatly encouraged to implement and improve health and safety standards on an organizational level.
The governing body responsible for health and safety in the construction industry is the South African Council for Project and Construction Management Profession, but interviewees in the study reported that there weren’t enough qualified professionals registered with the body to keep up with the ongoing demand in the industry.
Along with the lack of legislation and governing professionals, the ways in which medium and large contractors handled health and safety were often noted to be sub-optimal.
When managed internally, companies rarely allocated enough resources, lacked accountability and provided few incentives for employees to engage with training or health and safety activities.
When outsourced, focus tended to fall on legislative compliance rather than continual improvement of health and safety structures within the organization.
The construction business environment itself also lends itself to a poor regard for health and safety. Price-based competition and a tendency to rely on sub-contractors means that health and safety is rarely properly budgeted for.
There is no uniform basis within the industry for costing health and safety when pricing a project.
The potential solutions, for what is essentially an industry-wide health and safety concern, start at the top level. More policy is needed to guide contractors through the minimum requirements for health and safety within the industry.
Governing bodies could draw on established documents such as the EU’s framework directive.
The need for a greater number of qualified and certified construction health and safety specialists should be collectively addressed. There needs to be training in place to meet the demand of the construction industry. Regulators and unions could also work to limit the number of short-term employment contracts.
To address the issue of competition on pricing and under-budgeting, an industry-wide framework is needed for pricing the costs of health and safety. Subcontractors could provide this cost as part of their rates to primary organizations.
Contractors and subcontractors should also employ full time health and safety professionals to promote a safer culture. Organizations should set aside an annual budget for the development of their safety training and interventions.