“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.”

A key principle of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993) (OHSA) is that occupational hazards, risks, and dangers should be managed and mitigated through a collective team effort between management and the workers. This requires good communication between all parties. To this end, Section 17 of the OHSA places a legal requirement on every employer who employs more than 20 workers per work site to appoint a safety representative to monitor health and safety conditions to be the link between workers and management regarding health and safety matters. They must be designated in writing, and for a specific period.

Safety Representatives must be appointed in accordance with the agreement as intended in the General Administrative Regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Regulation 6 stipulates that where a Safety Officer is required, an employer must meet with the registered trade unions to negotiate a collective agreement. Where there is no registered trade union, the employer must consult with the worker representatives.

The following issues must be discussed during the negotiations and consultations to reach a collective agreement:

  • Nomination or election of health and safety representatives
  • Terms of office, and the circumstances in which they can be removed
  • How vacancies will be filled
  • How the health and safety representatives must perform their functions in terms of the act
  • The facilities, training, and assistance that must be provided to a health and safety representative

Section 17 of the OHS Act requires that there must be at least one representative for per 100 workers in shops and offices. All other workplaces must appoint at least one representative for every 50 workers. The appointed Safety Representatives should be full-time employees with a familiarity of the workplace. The representative activities must be performed during ordinary working hours.

According to Section 18 of the OHS Act, which extrapolates on the functions of a safety representative, the employer is duty-bound to empower the safety representatives to perform their duties.

Safety Representatives may:

  • Review health and safety measures for effectiveness
  • Identify potential hazards and major incidents
  • Examine the causes of incidents
  • Investigate complaints from workers regarding health and safety
  • Advise the committee and the employer on health and safety matters

They are entitled to:

  • Visit sites where incidents occurred
  • Attend inspections
  • Attend any investigation or formal inquiry into a health and safety incident
  • Inspect any document related to health and safety matters
  • Accompany an inspector
  • Be accompanied by technical advisor where approved by the employer
  • Participate in internal audits

A Safety Representative will not incur any civil liability if he failed to anything he could have done or was required to do.

An employer must establish proper, official channels to facilitate communication between workers, safety representatives and management. These channels could include “toolbox talks” where employees are encouraged to discuss potential hazards, to the use of a suggestion box. Inspection lists, internal reports and worker complains can also be used to promote clear communication.