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Acute health and safety skills shortage has led operational risk management to the brink of chaos, writes Mabila Mathebula.

We are living in a scary era of rising population, dwindling natural resources, and proportionally dwindling human resources. As our number increases, we need ever more skilled people, particularly in preventing loss and waste, and maintaining personal, environmental, organisational and ethical health.

According to The Sunday Times a crisis is looming in South Africa’s 25 universities because more than 1430 professors from 13 institutions will reach retirement age in the next 10 years.

Meanwhile United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon noted grave consequences of dwindling resources; “Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains, and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict”.

African brain-drain continues

No industry is not immune from the brain-drain as experienced engineers retire en masse and others go overseers to explore ‘greener pastures’. Our experienced railway human resources, like our water resources, should to be carefully managed by virtue of their fragility and rarity.

The state’s infrastructure programme has hit rock bottom due to inexperienced engineers, architects and quantity surveyors.

Ralf Dahrendorf, an outstanding German sociologist, noted that social change was ubiquitous, seeming to be everywhere. Industrial and business reform, like social change, is also ubiquitous, or ‘alomteewoordig’ in Afrikaans.

Infrastructure renaissance

Railways around the world are ‘hauling’ themselves out of the decline phase, hopefully into infrastructure renaissance. But this transition is tumultuous since the Baby Boomers, armed with critical safety skills, are gradually retiring or starting their own businesses, making room for Generation X and the Millennials.

To rub salt into the wound, a global battle to attract talent has been declared. The ‘brain magnet’ effect is exacerbated by new employment contract formats that make sheltered employment obsolete if not archaic.

Conserve skills like water

Human resources is like the game of chess, needing strategy, persistence, cunning, and the ability to look further into the future than competitors.

Strategies used in the competition and conservation of water also apply to skills. What the UN calls ‘land grabbing’ could be extended to ‘skill grabbing’.

Saudi Arabia, for example, one of the Middle East’s largest cereal growers, announced it would cut cereal production by 12% a year to reduce the unsustainable use of its groundwater.

To protect its water and food security, the Saudi government has issued incentives to lease large tracks of land in Africa for agricultural production.

The United Kingdom and Australia are aggressively recruiting railway engineers from Commonwealth countries such a South Africa and Zimbabwe. Skills grabbing is not a stream, but a river and a tide.

Management consultants and gurus encourage organisations to think outside silos, and that applies particularly to skills and HR. The skills silos are running empty and soon we would be forced into new assumptions. Skills do not grow on trees.

Railway and health and safety skills has to be grown years in advance and stored in the ranks of organisations.

Canadian Prof Igor Grossman found that older Americans were wiser than younger Americans. But in extended research in Asia, particularly Japan, he found that the young were as wise as the elders, suggesting that the Japanese learned wisdom, or advanced skills, faster than Americans.

This does not imply that Americans are dimwits, but they approach skills and careers from a different perspective. In Singapore, if a father sent his child to fetch a hammer, the child would bring the hammer, nails and measuring tape.

Retirement age is too young

The mandatory retirement age of 65 in rail and other sectors robs the country of vital human resources.

Employers of older workers must manage health risks better, such as stress, diabetes, blood pressure, cancer, arthritis, stroke and ergonomics, but they should equally attend to skills transfer.

• Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the SA Railway Safety Regulator. Her writes for in his personal capacity.

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SABizonline is Africa's largest independent online Business Magazine, hosting over 1 000 articles and news items since 2009. is owned by the Cygma Group, a global provider of business management and compliance solutions and is a registered digital publication.


SABizonline is Africa's largest independent online Business Magazine, hosting over 1 000 articles and news items since 2009. is owned by the Cygma Group, a global provider of business management and compliance solutions and is a registered digital publication.

  • Shortage of Health and Safety Skills?? Are you sure?
    I am an unemployed qualified Safety Officer. I have made numerous applications for appointments but to no avail. I do take in consideration to the BEE and BBBEE and AA and all other abbreviations that could lead to my not being appointed but if there is such an shortage, surely someone could spare a position?!
    Thanks for an enjoyable inset!

  • I think the article is aimed at skills; not people. There is an oversupply of safety officers, but not all are sufficiently skilled to match the available vacancies. It is not enough to be skilled in safety. One also need skills in the industry and skills in business management.
    Purely from a Railway perspective, how many people do you know that understand SANS3000? Everybody seem to plan their careers to gain “international” exposure and neglect the skills needed to work right here in South Africa.
    Health & Safety is not about the skills of the safety officer. It is about skills in health & safety in all technical professions, as every single professional comes across hazards and risks associated with the work they do.

  • I can relate to Chris! I’m in the same position as he. Peter Shields is making a very good point!

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