Focus

Focus Archive

Safety and labour relations: where is the link?

June 2000

A South African Viewpoint from the National Occupational Safety Association (NOSA)

'It is commonly believed that unions will become de-politicised and concentrate on bread-and-butter issues, but I believe the opposite is likely and that we'll see the socio-political role of organised labour increasing and gaining a wider agenda.' - Roy Lorentz, director: HR, Defy Appliances Ltd., South Africa.

Defy Appliances management makes a significant contribution to successful health and safety issues, says Roy Lorentz, Director: Human Resources. The company employs more than 2,500 people and is owned by a consortium comprising Ethos Private Equity and the directors of the company. Defy operates three factories in Durban, East London and Ladysmith, South Africa as well as eight sales, service and spares operations across the country.

Changes in industrial relations have made great strides, while health and safety matters have not developed as speedily. However, an increasing awareness of environmental issues, technological developments and union demands for health and safety agreements will all contribute to a changed focus in the near future, says Lorentz.

Responsive and responsible management backs good industrial relations and good health and safety records. Most industrial relations and health and safety related incidents are responsibilities of line management. Poor communication and a lack of trust are still major challenges to the general well-being of shop floor relations.

Line managers should be trained to handle health and safety matters with full regard to both substantive and procedural fairness. Workers are less likely to see the plant safety officer as a villain if safety procedures and actions are open and seen to be fair.

Adherence to safety requirements is likely to be better where employees respect and accept health and safety staff as being their allies rather than their adversaries.

The significant cost to industry of lost-time accidents and low safety records are of course a concern to management. It is sometimes reluctantly acknowledged that bad housekeeping and poor management systems contribute significantly to individual safety records. The correct response is quite simple: management is right and can prove it, or management has made a mistake and will fix it.

IR versus SHE

It is an unfortunate fact that industrial relations practitioners and health and safety staff often view each other with extreme caution and sometimes with antagonism. The importance of formalised policies on industrial relations as well as on health and safety matters cannot be over-emphasised. Management should encourage the preparation of formalised policies.

These provide a framework on which to base individual management styles, but will also ensure that there is an acceptable starting point in the event of an industrial dispute.

Recognition

Policy statements should directly recognise the majority of people employed as having concern for their own safety and welfare and that of their fellow workers. Clarification by top management of company philosophy in respect of both industrial relations and health and safety is essential in ensuring that there is no fundamental conflict in the goals of the two functions.

Instead of sometimes bemoaning the fact that health and safety workers have negative views of trade unions and see some groups as potentially subversive, management should ensure that health and safety staff have been trained to understand the principles underlying the legitimacy of trade unions in a market economy.

SH&E people should be helped to understand the role of the unions and see that good industrial relations practice enhances adherence to credible safety procedures. It would also help if shop stewards were given the opportunity to understand and accept the legitimate role of health and safety staff. This could best be achieved by allowing them to question the legitimacy of any actions from the workers' perspective.

Again, either the actions have a sound base which can be explained and accepted, or they have no legitimacy and should be discontinued.

Socio-politics

Trade unions will not become depoliticised, on the contrary, I believe that they will to some extent begin to take on a broader political mantle with and ever-increasing agenda.

Health care on a broad basis will no doubt be a prominent topic on the agenda, while a critical aspect of workplace safety will be the issue of AIDS. Very few companies have sufficient information to enable them to decide on its impact on their business, and very little has been done in planning for the challenges that are almost certain to arise.

As with industrial relations, the responsibility for positive change in the field of health and safety rests fairly and squarely with top management. They have the more immediate power and influence to initiate and sustain change in the business environment and consequently in wider society.

Note

The National Occupational Safety Association (NOSA) magazine, Safety Management is published on a regular basis. Visit NOSA's extensive web site (www.nosa.co.za) which contains information on systems, training, services, products, events, publications, contacts and links.