The importance of the health and safety officer is to fulfill a critical function to the success of the modern organisation. As the name suggests, the person is there to promote health and safety inside a business. But what does this exactly entail?
In conjunction with department managers, the health and safety officer will normally write safety procedures, enforce them, do occupational health and safety training, monitor and manage the safety system, keep records and tool registers, and do inspections, amongst other duties. As with many other roles at a business, the person can be an internal appointment or outsourced to external consultants.
However, it does not have to be an either or scenario. Even where larger companies have internal safety specialists, they use external consultants given how the broad level of knowledge required in health and safety is significant.
There is also still some confusion as to the differences between a safety officer and a safety representative.
The former is an appointment made by the employer to facilitate their health and safety standards. There is no obligation in law to do so, but it is highly recommended. The latter is a statutory appointment. The employer is therefore obliged to do so because of statute. This person is effectively the representative of the workforce in respect of matters of health and safety.
For a company to create an enabling environment for the health and safety officer, it needs to understand its obligations in terms of health and safety both from legal and moral perspectives. There also needs to be a strategy that deals with health and safety as well as defining the role of the health and safety officer.
When accidents occur, the employer is subject to the ‘reasonable man test’. The question is asked, “What would a reasonable man do in ensuring health and safety in a given situation?”
If the employer fails such a test, there are prescribed penalties. In a case where negligence is uncovered, this may be construed as criminal negligence and criminal prosecution of the employer and responsible employees could follow.
In South Africa, particularly in the industrial, construction, and mining sectors, a culture of health and safety has been embraced to a large extent. Unfortunately, the role of health and safety is still neglected in many smaller office and technology businesses where there is a lack of awareness of statutory requirements, consequent to the environment being perceived as being ‘safe’.
Companies must therefore carefully review the health and safety procedures they have and identify where there are still gaps to fill. This is where the health and safety officer becomes a critical asset in this dynamic new business environment.