Health and safety do’s and don’ts for farmers

Navigating your way through the numerous rules and regulations of workplace health and safety can seem a daunting prospect, but labour consultants are there to guide you. Jeandré van der Walt spoke to a number of experts in the occupational health and safety industry about the key aspects of farmworker safety.

Health and safety do’s and don’ts for farmers
Providing workers with enough toilets, no further than 500m from the workplace, and handwashing facilities with access to clean water, soap and paper hand towels, is non-negotiable. Photo: Getty Images
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“Health and safety is a critical component that should be central to every business strategy.

After all, healthy workers are the heartbeat of any business,” says Jahni de Villiers, director at Labour Amplified. To this end, she adds, it is essential that employers adhere to the requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act No. 85 of 1993.

The purpose of the act, as set out by the Department of Labour, is: “To provide for the health and safety of workers in connection with the use of plants and machinery; the protection of persons, other than those at work, against health and safety hazards arising out of or in connection with the activities of persons at work; to establish an advisory council for occupational health and safety; and to provide for matters connected therewith.”

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Quoting the chief inspector of occupational health and safety at the Department of Labour,  De Villiers says that compliance is only 45% to 55% across all sectors. Put another way, this means that at least one in two farmers is not compliant.

She advises that, as a first step towards compliance, a farmer draw up an assessment that outlines all the areas of risk in his or her operation.

“From this starting point, you can take steps to determine how you can hedge the risks that are within your control.”

She points out that if one gets stuck, there are labour consultants who can offer advice and assistance. Training, too, can play an important role, as it enables employees to understand what the health and safety implications are for the workplace and what their responsibilities are.

SAFE FARMWORKER TRANSPORTATION
Earlier this year, farmworker transportation safety came under the spotlight following
a deadly crash near Worcester. According to Retha Louw, CEO of the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA), a transport risk assessment should form part of the overall health and safety risk assessment for a business.

“Although an employer is under no legal obligation to provide transport to and from
the workplace, the remote location of farms, the lack of public transport, and the level of poverty in rural areas are some of the issues that often obstruct employees from getting to work,” she explains.

Farmers are therefore often left with little option but to transport their workers. This
obviously carries risk and it is important that the transport be managed effectively.

Doing so brings many benefits for the employees and employer: less chance of injury, less risk of financial loss, and improved productivity and morale, says Louw.

All vehicles used to transport workers must meet the legal requirements as stipulated by the National Road Traffic Act of 1996. For example, Regulation 247 of the Act specifies the following:

“No person shall operate on a public road a goods vehicle conveying persons unless that portion of the vehicle in which such persons are being conveyed is enclosed to a height of (a) at least 350mm above the surface on which that person is seated; or (b) at least 900mm above the surface on which such person is standing, in a manner and with a material of sufficient strength to prevent such person from falling from such vehicle when it is in motion.”

“Ideally,” adds Louw, “no person being transported should be standing on the body of the vehicle, but there’s not really any specific prohibition on this.”

She stresses that farmers or management of farming businesses must at all
times ensure the following:

  • Maintaining a safe speed when transporting employees;
  • Passengers must sit or stand properly before the vehicle leaves. No employee’s body should lean over a vehicle;
  • No equipment, materials or tools are to be transported with workers;
  • The transporting vehicle must be roadworthy and have a valid licence;
  • The driver must be in possession of a valid professional driving permit when driving on a public road;
  • No schoolgoing children may be transported in the back of a vehicle designated for the transport of employees.

Agri Western Cape (AWC) has also indicated that under no circumstances may vehicles be overloaded with passengers. Where workers are transported on the backs of bakkies or trucks, AWC recommends that the protocol developed by AWC and the Western Cape Department of Agriculture during levels 4 and 5 of the lockdown be adhered to.

This states that 50% of the vehicle’s registered mass be used as a guideline for the number of persons being transported.

“I understand that the recommendations may imply additional costs, but in the interest of agriculture, we can’t support the overloading of vehicles when workers are transported,” says Jannie Strydom, CEO of AWC.

De Villiers cautions farmers that they must prepare themselves for possible changes to the law regarding the transportation of workers.

“Although farmers try their best to transport workers as safely as possible, it’s never 100% safe and it’s problematic. I don’t think this is something that will be allowed indefinitely.”

She recommends that the agriculture sector prioritise finding safer transport methods for farmworkers.

SAFETY DURING HARVESTING
De Villiers says that the harvesting of crops is associated with a number of potential health and safety hazards, such as the use of heavy equipment, falling, and exposure to the sun.

According to SIZA, farmers must ensure that all equipment used during this period is well maintained and ladders be inspected before use to ensure they are safe and in good condition.

In addition, employees should be trained to work safely at heights and taught the correct manual lifting techniques.

Unlimited and easily accessible water as determined by the South African National Standard (SANS) 241: 2015 must be provided to workers in orchards or vineyards.

Werner van Dyk, SIZA’s audit manager says that the water must be tested annually by a SANS-approved laboratory.

“If any deviations are picked up, the laboratory will provide recommendations that must be followed to ensure the water is safe.”

De Villiers stresses the importance of training workers on the cause, signs and symptoms of heat stroke or heat stress.

“The OHS Act stipulates that employees also share in the responsibility of workplace safety. You have to be able to look after yourself, but it’s also important that you can look after your co-workers and know what to do or who to contact in case of an emergency,” she says.

According to Van Dyk, the provision of toilets to workers is non-negotiable; in an orchard, for example, farmers may make use of mobile toilets. Toilets should be no further than 500m from the workplace, and there should be handwashing facilities with access to clean water, soap and paper hand towels.

According to SANS10400, Part T, there must be at least one toilet for every four
women and one for every eight men.

SAFETY MEASURES FOR CHEMICALS
The OHS Act has highly specific regulations on how chemicals used in the workplace must be handled. De Villiers explains that the type and amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) required by a worker will depend on the type of chemical being used.

PPE must be provided by the employer to the workers at no cost. However, PPE must be taken care of by the employees, and if it is damaged, the employee can be held responsible.

Van Dyk adds that before employees are  exposed to hazardous chemical substances, the employer must ensure they are comprehensively informed and trained. Workers who are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals must regularly undergo a medical examination conducted by a registered occupational health practitioner.

The medical bill for these examinations must be covered by the employer.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING COMPLIANT
Health and safety requirements are in place to keep employees safe and avoid exposure to hazards as far as possible. Health and safety compliance is also important for business.

“If farmers don’t comply, they will receive findings during their third-party audits that could hinder their sales to markets,” cautions De Villiers.

She adds that there is no room for farmers who do not meet health and safety requirements, as it takes only one such employer to put everyone at risk.

“Of course there are still some rotten apples here and there, but gradually they are being phased out because we simply cannot afford them.”

In addition, being health and safety compliant reduces the risk of being fined or prosecuted by the South African Police Service and the Department of Labour, or suffering reputational damage.

Louw says it is therefore important that farmers make sure they hire capable people who are in charge of managing health and safety on their farms.

“Competent people and a practical and relevant risk assessment are the key factors to managing health and safety successfully in a business,” she concludes.

Read the SIZA guide to health and safety management.

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