Health dept says nothing wrong with its ‘sick’ HQ
But union fights on, saying air in the Pretoria building is to blame for the collapse, even death, of workers
The national health department’s office in Pretoria is a “sickly” building that poses a health risk to its employees, said the National Education, Health & Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu).
The department is this week expected to release a report into the health of the 31-storey building after deploying an inspector to look into the union’s claims. The building underwent a R1bn renovation in 2004.
The union claims at least seven employees have collapsed at the office. More recently another employee, Elizabeth Nkosi, collapsed and died at her home allegedly because of breathing in “hazardous air” in the office.
But the department said there was no way the 59-year-old woman’s death could be linked to her working conditions, adding that the cause of her death is not known.
The health of the building has been in contention since it was evacuated by the department of labour on October 29 last year. A labour department inspector declared the building unsafe and unhealthy for employees. It required structural repairs for waterproofing and to fix a broken pump in the sprinkler system.
Staff had protested since April 2018 over the poor state of their office, with some describing it as a “death trap”.
In August 2018 unionised employees picketed at the entrance to the building. The health department called the police to ensure staff could enter the building.
In October 2018 the Public Servants’ Association of SA and Nehawu failed in a bid to take the department of health to the labour court in Johannesburg over the “sick” building.
Health spokesperson Popo Maja said the building was safe to work in. He said the department had hired its own investigator to look into the safety of the building.
“The minister will be releasing a report next week with the findings. It’s important to remember that the building was never declared unsafe; there were parts of the building which were needing repairs,” said Maja.
“Of the 1,115 offices, only 12 were declared unsafe but we are addressing the issues. We have made a major repair to the roof over the north tower and waterproofing was done over the festive season to fix leaks.”
He said the building was evacuated by the department of labour before their inspectorate had entered the building.
“The inspector did not do the initial check into the building but has subsequently entered the building – that is why the order [to evacuate the building] was lifted,” Maja said. Tibor Szana, occupational health and safety chief inspector at the department of labour, said the department made recommendations after tests were performed on the building.
“The tests indicated that problems existed in certain areas but that these problems in relation to indoor air quality could dissipate or be removed if the recommendations were applied,” Szana said.
The inspector said it was up to the health department to ensure that the recommendations were followed.
Maja said: “There are certain things that still need fixing but we need a huge cash injection to do that. For example one of the four water coolers which filters air into the aircon needs replacing – the quality of the air depends on the quality of that water.
“But we have made progress. I work in the building and I have never had a health issue. I used to get sinus attacks when I turned the aircon on, but that has since been fixed,” he said.
Maja denied that ill employees, or Nkosi’s death, could be linked to the office building. “There is no evidence to link their illness to the building. The woman who died had been on chronic medication for a long time but her family still blames the building for her death.
“We do take the safety of our workers very seriously but we are concerned that the information going around about their health is incorrect.”
Maja confirmed that some workers come to work but sit in the foyer in protest, but said it was done to play to the media. Most of those people were happy to work in their offices when the media was not around, he said.
“The department does take seriously the health aspects of the staff; we are not careless. We are confident we have have gone a long way in addressing the concerns of our staff,” he said.
Despite this, Nehawu said it will not allow any of its members into the building until the recommendations of the labour department inspection are fully implemented.
In a statement issued by the Nehawu secretariat, the union said that seven people had collapsed at the building “from breathing hazardous air”.
“We demand scientific results pertaining to the black dust found in the office. We demand the fire safety inspection report showing complete compliance with fire safety regulations. In case the department cannot comply with the above an alternative building must be found to relocate the whole department,” the statement said.
Nehawu alleges that workers were threatened with having their salaries docked if they did not return to work.
Maja said the minister of health would address these allegations in the press conference next week.
“We will fight tooth and nail in defending our members against the arrogant employers. If the department is looking for a fight we will gladly give them one without hesitation,” Nehawu said.