On 28 April 2022, the world commemorates the UN’s Safety and Health at Work initiative. With COVID-19 having shined a light on the physical workplace and how we interact with it and each other, we take a further look at whether the current standard of health, safety and access are on par for people with disabilities in the workplace.

World Day for Safety and Health

Since 2003, the International Labour Organization (ILO) began to observe Safety and Health at Work World Day in order to stress the prevention of accidents and diseases at work, capitalising on the ILO’s traditional strengths of tripartism and social dialogue.

Each of us is responsible for stopping deaths and injuries on the job. As governments, we are responsible for providing the infrastructure – laws and services – necessary to ensure that workers remain employable and that enterprises flourish.” – United Nations.

This is a broad vision that speaks to the average business, employer and employee, the majority of whom are abled.

People living with disabilities in South Africa

South Africa has about three million people living with disabilities, equating to about 7.5% of the country’s population.

The acceptance of people with disabilities is an ever-changing and ever-evolving process in all societies. Historically, people with disabilities have been excluded from the majority of meaningful activities in society, including access to education, health and economic opportunities.” – Albert & Hurst, 2004.

And this goes for contribution to economic development too.

Defining “people with disabilities” in the workplace

Despite the systematic bias towards people with disabilities, they form an unbelievably valuable asset in the workplace. And South Africa, in particular, needs every skilled worker to contribute towards the growth of the economy.

In terms of the Employment Equity Act, the focus is on the effect of a disability on the person in relation to the working environment, and not on the impairment. The Act defines people with disabilities as “people who have a long-term or recurring physical or mental impairment, which substantially limits their prospects of entry into, or advancement in, employment.

Affirmative Action refers to specific measures undertaken by an employer to ensure that suitably qualified people from designated groups have equal employment opportunities and are equally represented in all occupational categories and levels in the workplace. Such measures include providing reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities to provide an enabling work environment.

Confidentiality and disclosure

According to Pathways Pretoria, all persons have the right to privacy and, therefore, no person is obliged to inform their employer of a disability or impairment. However, should the impact of the disability be such that reasonable accommodation is needed, it will be to the advantage of the applicant or employee to disclose their disability.

Still a long way to go…

In a recent study co-published by Dr Armand Bam, Head of Social Impact at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, South African businesses are failing to meet regulatory targets for the employment of people with disabilities, while disillusionment with workplaces that do not accommodate their physical, social and professional needs contributes to the growing unemployment and under-employment of disabled people.

Rather than focusing on legislative compliance and regulatory targets, employers need to re-think how they define inclusion and provide an enabling working environment that supports disabled people’s integration and productivity from day one,” says Dr Bam.

Health and safety

The Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Act, No. 181 of 1993 Labour Relations Act, No. 66 of 1995  and Employment Equity Act states that an employer must provide and maintain a safe working environment for all employees, and the needs of employees with disabilities must be included.

Evacuation procedures should consider any specific or additional measures to ensure that an employee with a disability is safely evacuated from a building or work site during emergencies.

New possibilities unlocked

With the latest technological and IoT developments, many obstacles have been removed for disabled people in their aspirations to pursue the careers of their choice.

The pandemic alone has shown the world that we can conduct work virtually and remain productive, while not physically being in a specific place.

The same study by Dr Armand Bam also recommended for businesses to appoint a disability champion to promote and account for disability equity within the organisation. This includes the development of more inclusive recruitment and orientation practices, and actively involve people with disabilities in shaping onboarding processes.

If you are enthusiastic about creating a country that promotes equal employment opportunities and need help to organise your work environment to do this, we are here to assist in your business transition.

Learn more about Productivity SA’s services or get in contact if you have any questions or requests.