The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Workplace or Deathtrap?

HISTORY has it that during the Industrial Revolution workers were subjected to harsh working conditions. The drive to produce more and compete in developing Europe saw workers being forced to work even in life-threatening environments.

The nature of the work done and the steam engines used made the workplaces so terribly hot that workers could hardly endure. Machinery was not fenced off and workers would be exposed to the moving parts of the machines while working. Children were even employed to move between these dangerous machines as they were small enough to fit between tightly packed machinery. This led to them being placed in a great danger.

Times have changed and the industry is said to have become more "humane" and the people are civilised and have come up with more friendly working environments, but sadly in this era and age, occupational accidents are still high.

For children with working parents, it is their dream that they will come back home after work healthy to have some quality time with the family.

After all, is the count of a happy child's face running to embrace the parent after a hectic working day that keeps them going.

Workers have had to endure different kinds of hazards in the workplace. Sadly, in Zimbabwe many have lost limbs and some lives in the name of fending for the family.

The recent incident three people were killed and a fourth seriously injured after a pressurised tank exploded on a tobacco farm in Mt Hampden, just outside Harare, is a tragedy that is regrettable. It is a reflection of the many deaths that are happening at the workplace.

Police said those who perished in the explosions - all men - had been curing tobacco. So powerful was the explosion that the pressure tank, used in the treatment of tobacco, was flung over 100 metres into the air. They had no protective clothes on them.

It shows that employers are reluctant to invest in the safety of their workers and they would rather squander on lavish lifestyle instead of improving employees' welfare.

Employers have for long ignored the calls for safety over profits.

Not much is done to improve safety at work and when management decides to implement safety policies, they do it at a snail's pace. Labour analysts say occupational hazards have become the norm in the workplaces and its time employers improve the working conditions of their workers.

According to the National Social Security Authority, 5 000 workplace accidents were recorded with 103 deaths last year, an increase from 4 111 serious injuries and 75 fatalities in the previous year.

Participants at the National World Day for Safety and Health at Work commemorations held in Mutare late last year said what was most disturbing was that instead of reducing the work-related deaths and injuries the country was witnessing a steady growth.

The authority's Director for the Department of Occupational Health and Safety, Mr Rodgers Dhliwayo, said 2012 was the bloodiest year since the dollarisation of the economy as more workers continued to die.

"It is saddening to note that most of the injuries that occur at the workplace are a result of negligence and failure by employers to provide safety clothing and equipment for their workers.

"We have those who work in risky and heavy industries, so NSSA inspectors are empowered by the law to make arrests in the event that companies are not complying," he said.

A review of safety and health national performance in the last five years reveals that in the year 2007, there were 6 117 serious occupational injuries of which 72 were fatal.

In 2008, there were 3 810 serious injuries with 65 fatalities while in 2009, there were 3 122 serious accidents of which 64 were fatal.

The year 2010 recorded 4 410 serious injuries with 90 were fatalities and last year, the figure dropped slightly to 4 111 serious injuries and 75 deaths.

Manicaland Provincial Medical Director Dr Tapiwa Murambi described the injuries and deaths as "scary".

He urged companies to invest in occupational safety and management strategies to arrest the trend.

"The benefits (of the strategies) are numerous and include increases in productivity and product quality and limited safety and health risks," said Dr Murambi.

"As for Zimbabwe, the economy is emerging from a decade of excessive depression, contraction and hyper- inflation. The desire for a safe, healthy and sustainable economic recovery and growth which ushers decent jobs for our people is our national priority," he added.

Dr Murambi said a total of 1,7 million people across the world die of work related diseases every year.

He said occupational accidents and diseases represented a considerable economic burden for individuals, employers and society.

"Some of the costs include labour turnover, damaged equipment or lost income," said Dr Murambi.

According to statistics released by NSSA, the increase in the number of accidents occurring at the workplace shows that employers are not complying with the stipulated safety standards and regulations.

NSSA indicates that serious accidents continue to occur in all sectors of the economy with mining contributing the highest number of fatalities. The primary purpose of the association is to ensure the highest quality safety of workers in the workplace.

Alfonse Huruyadzo, who died last year after the mine shaft he was working collapsed, had the same dream of seeing his children grow up.

"Alfonse loved his children; he would sacrifice so that he can adequately look after his family. He had a dream like any other parent to see his children grow.

"What pains me is that he never had the opportunity to say goodbye to his children. In fact, on the day of his death, he had promised his young son new shoes," said Alfonse's wife, Gertrude.

Tendeukai Mudonzvo, who works for a construction company, escaped death by a whisker but spent three months in hospital after falling from a ladder.

"Our employer does not provide protective clothing, I fell from a ladder and injured my back, I was in hospital for almost three months," he said.

For a country that experienced one of the world's worst mining disasters in 1972, employers should have taken a leaf from the incident and put necessary measures in place to curb occupational hazards.

A total of 427 miners - 391 Africans and 36 Europeans - were killed on June 6 1972 at Wankie Colliery in Hwange following what is suspected to have been a gas explosion.

The disaster cast a dark shadow over not only the mining town of Hwange but also the entire nation and beyond.

Miners from South Africa, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Costa Rica among others died at the then Wankie Coal Mine Number Two Colliery, today known as Kamandama Mine.

It remains the worst mining disaster in Zimbabwe and one of the worst mining disasters in the long history of mining in the world.

Other terrible occupational accidents include the one that occurred at CABS Millennium Towers along Samora Machel Avenue in Harare where 15 construction workers perished after a goods hoist failed and crashed.

The Palm Groove Farm accident which claimed 23 lives and left 14 seriously injured, is also among the country's worst occupational hazards. The mining industry remains the chief culprit in work-related accidents.

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