April 30, 2021
June 1, 2021

It is a thing of human psychology to be aware of the potential danger in our surroundings, which makes it very easy for us to keep ourselves safe from things that pose an immediate threat. What we are perhaps not so adept at, is identifying the possible dangers and not-so-immediate threats. There are a variety of laws and regulations that prescribe the precautions against known dangers in a workplace and things to have in place should an emergency arise.

The word ‘Mayday’ was coined in the 1920s when Frederick Stanley Mockford made the suggestion of an expression to be used in emergency situations at Croydon Airport in London and is derived from the French “m’aider”, which means “Help me”. From there on out it has become a widely recognised call for emergency response. The only question that remains is: Am I equipped for an emergency at my place of work?

Many people may make the mistake to think that since they do not work in a dangerous environment, it is not necessary to have an emergency contingency plan. Fortunately (at least for the sake of the workers), that is not how the law works.

It is always the responsibility of the employer to ensure that workspaces are both safe to work in, and that the workers are aware of any dangers through proper written and visual communication. When safety measures have been set in place, the ultimate responsibility for adhering to the safety protocols then falls on the workers.

What basic legal obligations do you have with regard to safety in the workplace?

First Aid in response to a workplace emergency

The outcome of many emergencies, especially if it poses a life-threatening danger, will rely on the first actions taken to ensure the safety of your employees. For this reason, as legislated in the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act 85 of 1993, if your staff makeup consists of more than 10 people, you need to have at least one first aider appointed for every 50 people in your employ (or part thereof).

The first aider needs to be certified by a recognised body and needs to be readily available during regular working hours. Where there are specific hazards that are unique to your workplace environment (such as exposure to or handling of hazardous chemicals), the first aider will also need to be equipped to react to injuries that may happen in the course of working in such an environment.

A first aid box must be available and clearly marked. It must be equipped for any general workplace injury and any other context-specific injury. For instance, someone working at a snake park may need to have specific anti-venoms in the first aid box and know how to use it in case of an emergency.

Fire emergencies in the workplace in South Africa

Fires are not common hazards or threats in most office environments, but even though most office spaces will never see a fire, that doesn’t mean you can slack in taking precautions. Even a small fire has the possibility of getting out of hand very quickly and could easily turn into an emergency.

Legislation requires employers to provide firefighting equipment and safety rules to ensure the ongoing safety of their employees. There must be firefighting facilities in every vulnerable area of a workplace. Escape routes must be clearly marked (especially in buildings or sites where such a route is not immediately obvious). Employees must be instructed on how to use firefighting equipment and be given clear guidelines regarding fire precaution. Notices on fire safety and procedures must be displayed clearly in the event of a fire on site.

Regarding fire precaution, a similar requirement to that of First Aid is expected in that at least one in every 50 employees must have at least basic firefighting skills. This is to ensure that there is someone who is trained in fire safety who can direct others and react correctly in an emergency situation without causing any undue panic.

Furthermore, the following safety measures are required:

  • Regular fire drills must be conducted to ensure that staff know how to react and where to go in the shortest time possible in case of a fire.
  • Employees must have basic training on how to operate fire extinguishers and fire hoses.
  • Employees must have a basic understanding of how to put out electrical fires as opposed to fires caused by flammable sources.
  • Employees must be aware of evacuation procedures and how to notify emergency services.
  • Employees must have a basic understanding of how to contain the fire (such as knowing to keep doors and windows closed as far as possible.
  • In moderate to high-risk industrial or commercial sites, a portable fire extinguisher must be installed for every 100 square metres.

Tips for employers

One thing that can be recommended for employers in relation to preventing workplace emergencies and knowing how to act if an emergency should arise, is to make compliance more than just a box to tick. Making sure your employees know that you are dedicated to their safety can go a long way to building strong relationships and making your employees feel valued.

Furthermore, when you post your next vacancy, it may not be a bad idea to add that a first-aid or firefighting certificate would be advantageous (especially if you are highly dependent on one or two employees to make your current requirements).

Non-compliance could have serious repercussions — not only endangering the lives of your employees, but also damaging your business, or leading to fines and/or imprisonment depending on the severity of the contravention. Always speak to a legal adviser to ensure that you are making the correct changes and are taking the right steps to ensure workplace safety.


This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

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