Every once in while a media report of a building somewhere in South Africa which has caught alight for one of a variety of reasons brings home the sombre spectre of how quickly this can translate into human tragedy, not to mention the destruction of what may well be a sizeable asset.
It also raises the issue of who is responsible for the health and safety of those in such buildings, particularly in regard to fire risk, says Christo van Wyk, facilities manager for JHI, a major property services company managing some R40 billion in assets.
"While comprehensive procedures are in place to ensure that all buildings managed by JHI comply with the requirements of the Occupational Health & Safety Act, it is a perhaps surprising fact that many properties in city centres do not comply with the required fire safety regulations – contained within the Act - simply because of a lack of awareness of these.
"Unfortunately the compliance requirements of the Act are not clear, and similarly -  due to the intricacies and ramifications of the Act - the benefits to be gained from achieving compliance are not tangibly evident to landlords and property owners.  It is regrettable that as a result, some property owners and managers may not be convinced of the importance of spending time, and capital, in achieving compliance. In addition, it's important to note that while the Act describes what is required by employers in regard to compliance, it does not specifically address the responsibilities of property owners and property managers," says van Wyk.
He says with legal input, JHI has interpreted the Act and from a practical point of view it seems logical that the common areas and safety systems, ie fire alarms, smoke detection and fire equipment of properties are the responsibility of the property owner or his property manager. As a result JHI provides its clients with a comprehensive service to achieve and maintain compliance.
Some types of buildings are more susceptible to fire risk, such as:
·         high rise buildings – due to the difficulty to evacuate
·         buildings with a high number of occupants and visitors, ie flats, shopping centres etc
·         older buildings where the fire protection systems have not been maintained; and
·         all buildings where the landlord does not have a structured risk management process in place.
In addition, some of the more specific, common areas tend to be more susceptible to fire risk, for example closed off areas such as motor or switchgear rooms or those with distribution boards, areas which are not visible and areas where the landlord has failed to put in place maintenance and inspection contracts.
Says van Wyk: "Building safety requires an ongoing awareness and diligence among property owners and managers, including regular physical inspections, the training of relevant staff and having sustainable and structured systems in place.
"It is the responsibility of the property owner and/or the property manager to ensure that the property - with reference to specific areas - complies with all facets of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act and other statutory requirements such as building plan approvals, engineering certificates, etc."
He says in regard to shopping centres, property owners and/or managers focus on the health and safety awareness of common areas, such as parking areas, basement, walkways, passages, public toilets and court centres. Regarding other properties eg office buildings and factories, the responsibility of property owners and/or managers in terms of health and safety includes common areas such as lifts, lobbies, stairways, parking areas, public toilets and waste areas. Evacuation plans should also be provided in designated areas in regard to all the above properties.
"It is the responsibility of the owner/landlord to ensure that any tasks assigned to the property manager, as well as subsequent tasks to be carried out by employees and other service providers conform to the Act. Similarly, all contractors providing a service at the property are required to sign an OHS undertaking, whereby the employer is indemnified against actions and lawsuits of the employees of the contractors if any loss, damage or claim arises. In addition, the contractor is required to provide an Occupational Health and Safety Plan and Programme, whereby his/her employees are equipped with the necessary safety equipment required in order to carry out their work.  Contractors should also be registered in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act," adds van Wyk.
Issued by Gaye de Villiers

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