Union fails to get health department staff moved from ‘death trap’ building

The Public Servants Association has failed in its bid to force the health department to move staff out of a building that they claim is unsafe.

The union approached the Labour Court in Johannesburg on an urgent basis‚ asking that staff at the Civitas building in Pretoria‚ the national headquarters of the health department‚ be relocated.

The application followed a deadly fire in September that claimed the lives of three firefighters responding to a blaze at the Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg. That building housed three Gauteng provincial departments – health‚ cooperative governance and human settlements – and was found to not be compliant with occupational health and standards.

In their court application‚ the PSA said it believed the Civitas building was also unsafe – and a tragedy waiting to happen. Civitas staff have been protesting outside the headquarters intermittently since April‚ claiming the building was a “death trap”.

However‚ the Labour Court dismissed the application on the basis that it had no jurisdiction to hear the matter. The PSA raised a concern that the merits of the case were not heard.

Judge André van Niekerk ruled that the court had no jurisdiction to entertain “any dispute that concerns a work-related grievance‚ deal with any allegations of unfair employer conduct or somehow exercise general supervisory role over the employment relationship”.

PSA spokesman Tahir Maepa said they were looking at appealing the judgment.

“As the PSA‚ we are very disappointed that the court didn’t listen to the merits of our case. We approached the court to prevent possible loss of life and the court has really set the wrong precedent‚” Maepa said.

“Here is a matter of principle which must go beyond looking at the legal limitations. The court should have looked at the severity of not intervening. Lives could be lost‚ so basically what the court did was to say we can’t get involved now‚ we can only get involved if someone dies.”

Maepa was adamant that the building was unsafe.

“If the building is safe‚ why are they only allowing workers to work from 8am to 1pm?” he asked‚ adding that the shortened workday was because renovations were underway in the building in the afternoon.

Maepa said conditions in the building were “really bad”. He said on Monday that the offices were flooded following heavy rain at the weekend.

Last month‚ government said that Civitas was a state-of-the-art building which had been poorly maintained.

The PSA approached the court to seek‚ among other things‚ an order directing the health department to move 1‚700 staff to a safer working environment free of the risks and hazards identified in two reports by the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH).

Public Works‚ which is responsible for housing government departments‚ was also cited as a respondent.

PSA also wanted the department to comply with recommendations by NIOH in respect of an indoor air quality survey and an area noise survey.

The union also wanted the court to declare that staff’s refusal to work in the building did not amount to a strike‚ and to interdict the department from disciplining staff for refusing to enter the Civitas building.

In June‚ NIOH conducted surveys on the area noise in the plant room‚ and indoor air quality in the building. The reports established that the noise rating limit was exceeded in two of the four areas measured and that in a number of offices air velocity and relative humidity did not conform to recommended standards.

The health and public works departments opposed the application‚ claiming the reports on which PSA relied on did not support its contentions and indicated that air quality was within acceptable levels and that while the plant room may have high noise levels‚ this was expected for a room where plant machinery was kept and which employees did not enter on a frequent basis.

Ministers form both departments stated that there was a notice at the entrance to the plant room stating it was a noise area‚ and that employees working in the room had been issued with protective muffs.

The ministers disputed the factual basis on which relief was sought and denied the working environment at the Civitas building was unsafe‚ or that it posed a risk to the health of the staff.



Source: TMG Digital.

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