Flaming row over health dept dangers

The day after a deadly fire began raging through the Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg on Wednesday last week, there was a much smaller fire at another government-owned building. On that Thursday evening, a fire broke out on the 14th floor of the Civitas building in Pretoria, where the national health department is housed.

The fire alarms went off and workers were able to extinguish the blaze. There had been another fire in the building days before and, on Friday last week, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi suggested foul play.

The conditions at the Civitas building came into sharp focus after the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building, which housed three provincial government departments. Three firefighters died fighting the blaze and 13 people were sent to hospital for smoke inhalation.

Since that fire, it has emerged that at least nine government-owned buildings in the province had been found to be noncompliant with health and safety codes, according to a report commissioned by the Gauteng department of infrastructure and development. These buildings have been evacuated.

The Civitas building has been the subject of a protracted struggle by unions to get workers out of what they allege is a hazardous workplace. The unions say the building is making people sick, but the department of health has said working conditions are not nearly as bad as they have been made out to be.

The Public Servants’ Association (PSA) headed to the high court in Pretoria last week to oppose the department’s urgent interdict to compel its workers to go back to work in the building after industrial action and an on-and-off stay away since April. Workers downed tools on Thursday. They gathered on the ground floor of the Civitas building to protest their working conditions.

The matter was referred to the labour court to be heard on Friday, September 14.

The PSA’s application deals with section 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which requires every employer to provide and maintain a safe working environment. Three reports on the Civitas building point to noncompliance with health and safety codes.

As firefighters struggled to extinguish the Bank of Lisbon blaze, the PSA and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) decried the provincial government’s failure to move workers out of the building. The union’s provincial deputy general secretary, Gracia Rikhotso, said Nehawu had warned that the conditions in the building would lead to tragedy. But unions had been told the week before that plans to move workers out of the building had been called off.

She said the Civitas building was another case in which the lives of public servants had wilfully been put in danger by the government.

The PSA is seeking an order declaring that the refusal of workers to work in the Civitas building does not amount to a strike. Its primary concern is that the working conditions are making people sick.

In an affidavit to the court, PSA assistant manager Reuben Maleka said a number of its members had complained about health issues, which they believe are related to their working conditions.

A 2016 report from the National Occupational Safety Association found that more than half of the assessed areas were not compliant with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, although the department’s spokesperson, Popo Maja, said many of these problems had since been attended to.

Two more reports were compiled. One found that there was no ventilation in the building and this possibly contributed to the symptoms experienced by some workers.

According to an affidavit, one person suffered from shortness of breath, burning eyes, headaches and sinus, while another, who had exhausted her medical aid, was having to use an asthma pump.

Maleka said the department had neglected to maintain a safe working environment. “Compelling the applicant’s [PSA] members to continue working in an environment that is harmful to their health and wellbeing is a violation of their constitutional rights,” he added.

The health department is opposing the PSA’s application.

Maja told the Mail & Guardian the union’s claims had been overstated and the building had never been declared uninhabitable.

“There are definitely elements of legitimacy to the claims made by the unions and we have said so from the outset. We are working very hard to attend to their demands,” he said.

The department’s main concern was the intimidation of people who had not participated in industrial action, Maja said. “As much as people have the right to strike, they must also respect the right not to strike.”

He said the department could not dismiss claims that the building is making workers sick, but it had been requesting evidence of such cases from the unions “for ages”.

Maja said the decision on whether workers should be moved lay with the department of labour, not health.

After the provincial government had to evacuate nine buildings, spokesperson Thabo Masebe told the M&G that the provincial government should have heeded the calls of unions earlier.

“The unions definitely have a point. You can’t place staff in workplaces that don’t meet health and safety standards,” he said.“This is why we have decided to evacuate those that are noncompliant.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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