Working hours within the construction industry are higher than normal sectors. The Department of Employment and Labour has stated that further research is needed to investigate the possibility of reducing work hours in South Africa, particularly as research by Oxford University has found that South African workers have some of the longest working hours in the world. This research analysed the working hours of employees across more than 50 countries from 1950 to 2017, and South African workers were found to have an average working hour per employee on an annual basis which is reflective of the data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO reports that while most South African workers adhere to a 40–48-hour work week, 21% of the workforce works 49 hours per week or more.
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) outlines the laws governing working hours in South Africa and stipulates that the maximum normal working hours allowed are 45 hours weekly, excluding overtime.
According to the BCEA, the current laws in place governing working hours are as follows:
Workers must not work more than:
- 45 hours in any week.
- 9 hours a day if a worker works 5 days or less a week.
- 8 hours a day if a worker works more than 5 days a week.
- Compressed work week: You may agree to work up to 12 hours a day without paid overtime. This agreement must be in writing. When working a compressed working week, workers can’t work more than 45 hours a week, 10 hours overtime or 5 days a week.
The BCEA allows for a collective agreement to average working hours over a period of up to four months, with a limit of an average of 45 ordinary hours and 5 hours of overtime per week for workers who agree to this. However, certain workers, including senior managers, travelling sales staff, those working less than 24 hours a month, and emergency workers are excluded from these provisions.
The department cites the International Labour Organisation in stating that normal working hours should be gradually reduced to achieve a “social standard” without reducing workers’ wages. The BCEA aims to reduce working hours to a 40-hour week, but there has been no update on this since the last study. Given the changes South Africa has experienced, including the COVID-19 pandemic, further research may be necessary to track progress and assess the feasibility and potential unintended consequences of reducing working hours.
The construction industry is plagued by long work hours, with many employees working over 50 hours a week according to some studies. However, research indicates that as construction workers put in longer hours, their productivity significantly decreases, leading to high rates of turnover, absenteeism, and stress-related leave.
As a result, many construction workers report being dissatisfied with their work-life balance, compared to only 39% of the general population. This inability to balance work and personal life has negative impacts on health and well-being and can even cause stress and relationship problems.
The construction industry’s significantly longer working hours and higher rates of worker dissatisfaction than other industries put both workers and projects at risk. Therefore, it is time to prioritize work-life balance and make the industry a more appealing place to work.
Extended and irregular work hours can result in fatigue and physical and mental stress. Additionally, prolonged exposure to potential health hazards such as noise and chemicals can occur when working extended shifts. These exposures could exceed permissible exposure limits or violate other health standards. Therefore, employers are responsible for implementing measures to monitor and limit worker exposure to health and physical hazards in the workplace, as mandated by the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Fatigue caused by overworking in construction can impair workers’ alertness and increase the risk of on-site incidents and injuries. Proper rest and work-hour limitations can help prevent such incidents and ensure the safety of everyone on the site. Construction work is often physically demanding and poses obvious dangers such as incidents, exposure to hazardous materials, and repetitive strain injuries. Unfortunately, the industry has historically adopted a “just get on with it” attitude towards these issues, causing workers to ignore the mounting pressures on their mental well-being and work/life balance. As a result, many workers experience burnout and other negative impacts on their mental health.
To improve worker satisfaction and reduce stress, construction companies should adopt several strategies. Firstly, they should address understaffing by constantly recruiting new workers, rather than waiting until a labour shortage occurs. This approach will ensure that workers are not overworked and stressed out. Secondly, mentorship programs should be established to provide support and guidance to workers, helping them develop skills, build leadership capabilities, and promote mental health. Thirdly, companies should invest in technology solutions that save time and reduce the risk of errors while also increasing safety. Examples of such tools include GIS mapping, digital checklists, and real-time communication with supervisors. These solutions not only help workers do their jobs more efficiently but also provide them with greater confidence and validation that they are performing their tasks correctly.
As safety professionals, our responsibility is to educate workers on the correlation between fatigue and an increased risk of injury for both them and their colleagues. Subsequently, we must work together with employers and workers to identify, prevent, and alleviate fatigue in construction sites.
Responsibility of the Employer:
- Incorporate fatigue management into the initial planning of the project.
- Design work schedules that allow for ample opportunities to rest.
- Explore the possibility of shorter night shifts.
- Limit the number of consecutive night shifts.
- Mandate a minimum amount of time off before starting a shift after working for 10 hours or more.
- Establish protocols for monitoring and managing the risks associated with fatigue.
- Educate workers on the dangers of fatigue and how to identify symptoms.
- Include fatigue in investigations into the underlying causes of workplace accidents.
- Create a system for workers to report problematic work schedules anonymously.
Responsibility of the Employee:
- Use your off time wisely to ensure that you are fit for duty when you return to work.
- Follow any reporting policies that your employer has in place, particularly for near-misses or other incidents that could lead to injury or damage.
- Take measures to protect your sleep:
- Don’t take on additional work that reduces your opportunities to sleep when you are working long shifts.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and aim for at least seven hours of sleep each night.
- During irregular shifts, establish a four-hour “anchor” time for sleep that remains consistent and supplement it with naps.
- Adjust your sleeping environment or household routine if possible.
- Avoid consuming caffeine and alcohol before going to sleep.
- Be aware of early signs of fatigue in yourself and others, such as fidgeting, eye-rubbing, frequent blinking, or staring blankly.
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CEO Cairnmead Industrial Consultants (Pty) Ltd
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