At first glance, the answer to the questions: “What is occupational health and safety?” appears to be self-explanatory. But what does it really mean?

Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) relates to the health, safety, and welfare of people in the working environment. These people are not only the workers, but also employers, customers and family members who may be affected by any occupational hazard leading to injury.

An occupational hazard is defined as “an injury or ailment resulting from the work one does or from the environment in which one works.” By this definition, it becomes clear that Occupational Health and Safety is a multidisciplinary field concerning all occupations, working environments and various risk matrices.

 The Occupational Health and Safety Act, Act 85 of 1993, is the main legislation governing workplace safety and policy in South Africa. The main objective of the Act is to pro-actively attempt to prevent and avoid work related injuries and illness. The Act regulates health and safety in all organisations and applies across all industry and work environments, except mines and ships.

However, beyond laws and policies, creating a safe and healthy workplace is a moral obligation on every responsible person – employers and employees alike. And it is simply good business practice. Protecting your staff and co-workers is protecting your business and job. The OHSA distributes the responsibility for the overall health and safety of the working environment across all levels of the human structures in business – fostering a holistic safety net for all involved.

Employers are held responsible for protecting the welfare of their employees. Failing to adhere to the OHSA, and failing health and safety inspections, could result in temporary closure of the business while the necessary corrections and improvements are made. Continuing to contravene the Act could lead to the business being permanently closed. If, however, a worker is injured at work while the business was in contravention of the OHSA could lead to a fine or even, depending on the seriousness of the injury, to imprisonment.

Employees, on the other hand, must do their part in ensuring the safety of the workplace by adhering to both the OHSA and the additional health and safety policies of their employer. Employees must also identify potential hazards or safety contraventions in the workplace and report them to the responsible managers. Employees also face fines or imprisonment if an injury occurs in the workplace and it is found that s/he is responsible.

Occupational health and safety are important because all workers wish to work in a safe and protected environment. Health and safety extend beyond physical hazards or injuries, to the wellness of employers and employees. Looking after the wellbeing of employees start with the basic principle of protecting them from harm by creating a working environment where their safety is priority.