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March 15, 2021

Mayday, Mayday! Are You Equipped for a Workplace Emergency?

It is a thing of human psychology to be aware of the potential danger in our surroundings, which makes it very easy for us to keep ourselves safe from things that pose an immediate threat. What we are perhaps not so adept at, is identifying the possible dangers and not-so-immediate threats. There are a variety of laws and regulations that prescribe the precautions against known dangers in a workplace and things to have in place should an emergency arise.

The word ‘Mayday’ was coined in the 1920s when Frederick Stanley Mockford made the suggestion of an expression to be used in emergency situations at Croydon Airport in London and is derived from the French “m’aider”, which means “Help me”. From there on out it has become a widely recognised call for emergency response. The only question that remains is: Am I equipped for an emergency at my place of work?

Many people may make the mistake to think that since they do not work in a dangerous environment, it is not necessary to have an emergency contingency plan. Fortunately (at least for the sake of the workers), that is not how the law works.

It is always the responsibility of the employer to ensure that workspaces are both safe to work in, and that the workers are aware of any dangers through proper written and visual communication. When safety measures have been set in place, the ultimate responsibility for adhering to the safety protocols then falls on the workers.

What basic legal obligations do you have with regard to safety in the workplace?

First Aid in response to a workplace emergency

The outcome of many emergencies, especially if it poses a life-threatening danger, will rely on the first actions taken to ensure the safety of your employees. For this reason, as legislated in the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act 85 of 1993, if your staff makeup consists of more than 10 people, you need to have at least one first aider appointed for every 50 people in your employ (or part thereof).

The first aider needs to be certified by a recognised body and needs to be readily available during regular working hours. Where there are specific hazards that are unique to your workplace environment (such as exposure to or handling of hazardous chemicals), the first aider will also need to be equipped to react to injuries that may happen in the course of working in such an environment.

A first aid box must be available and clearly marked. It must be equipped for any general workplace injury and any other context-specific injury. For instance, someone working at a snake park may need to have specific anti-venoms in the first aid box and know how to use it in case of an emergency.

Fire emergencies in the workplace in South Africa

Fires are not common hazards or threats in most office environments, but even though most office spaces will never see a fire, that doesn’t mean you can slack in taking precautions. Even a small fire has the possibility of getting out of hand very quickly and could easily turn into an emergency.

Legislation requires employers to provide firefighting equipment and safety rules to ensure the ongoing safety of their employees. There must be firefighting facilities in every vulnerable area of a workplace. Escape routes must be clearly marked (especially in buildings or sites where such a route is not immediately obvious). Employees must be instructed on how to use firefighting equipment and be given clear guidelines regarding fire precaution. Notices on fire safety and procedures must be displayed clearly in the event of a fire on site.

Regarding fire precaution, a similar requirement to that of First Aid is expected in that at least one in every 50 employees must have at least basic firefighting skills. This is to ensure that there is someone who is trained in fire safety who can direct others and react correctly in an emergency situation without causing any undue panic.

Furthermore, the following safety measures are required:

  • Regular fire drills must be conducted to ensure that staff know how to react and where to go in the shortest time possible in case of a fire.
  • Employees must have basic training on how to operate fire extinguishers and fire hoses.
  • Employees must have a basic understanding of how to put out electrical fires as opposed to fires caused by flammable sources.
  • Employees must be aware of evacuation procedures and how to notify emergency services.
  • Employees must have a basic understanding of how to contain the fire (such as knowing to keep doors and windows closed as far as possible.
  • In moderate to high-risk industrial or commercial sites, a portable fire extinguisher must be installed for every 100 square metres.

Tips for employers

One thing that can be recommended for employers in relation to preventing workplace emergencies and knowing how to act if an emergency should arise, is to make compliance more than just a box to tick. Making sure your employees know that you are dedicated to their safety can go a long way to building strong relationships and making your employees feel valued.

Furthermore, when you post your next vacancy, it may not be a bad idea to add that a first-aid or firefighting certificate would be advantageous (especially if you are highly dependent on one or two employees to make your current requirements).

Non-compliance could have serious repercussions — not only endangering the lives of your employees, but also damaging your business, or leading to fines and/or imprisonment depending on the severity of the contravention. Always speak to a legal adviser to ensure that you are making the correct changes and are taking the right steps to ensure workplace safety.


This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).

Michael Phillips

CA(SA) Registered Auditor – Director

Mike is the director of RDL Chartered Accountants Inc. and as a Registered Auditor has the knowledge and ability to comply with the latest auditing standards and financial reporting requirements and he completes all the statutory audits required by our clients.

Chris Johnson

Trainee Accountant

Chris, studying for his Chartered Certified Accountant [ACCA] qualification joined the practice in February 2016 and maintains a portfolio of clients attending to the write up of client general ledgers to trial balance, completion and submission of client statutory returns and management accounts. Chris holds a Diploma in Accounting and Business from ACCA and is a registered Business Accountant with SAIBA.

Hendrietta Soafo

Statutory Clerk

Hendrietta has been with LDC since 2004 and oversees the entire statutory function of LDC. She communicates regularly with the Regulator – CIPC and ensures that all of our clients are in good standing in respect of annual returns, company registers, share registers and directors and officers registers. She also attends to all new company incorporations, director appointments, share transfers and minutes of meetings.

Lisa Sampson

Senior Bookkeeper

Lisa, a Certified Bookkeeper joined LDC in 2008 and oversees the bookkeeping role of all LDC clients. She has extensive Pastel Accounting and Payroll experience and prepares all client files for year end annual financial statements. She also ensures all statutory returns are completed and submitted to the various governmental departments.

Teresa Verdonese

Tax Manager

Teresa has a B Com Accounting and an LLB (University of Johannesburg), and is in process of completing her Diploma in Advanced Taxation (UNISA). She specialises in Corporate & Individual taxation & manages the tax base from preparation to assessment. Teresa is a Registered General Tax Practitioner with the South Africa Institute of Tax Practitioners (SAIT).

Paddy Crichton

CA(SA) – Director – Accounting

Paddy completed his CTA at the University of the Witwatersrand and articles at Aiken and Carter (now KPMG) where he qualified as a chartered accountant. Prior to joining LDC in June 2017 he was employed as Financial Manager and Company Secretary in manufacturing and wholesale distribution companies, most recently as Financial Director of a leading international kitchen appliance distributor. Paddy oversees the full accounting function of LDC

Bob Lees

FCG(CS) FCIBM Professional Accountant (SA) – Managing Director

Bob started the practice in September 1991 and is the Chairman and Managing Director in overall charge of LDC Accounting and Tax Consultants Inc. He has three professional business qualifications and holds practicing certificates issued by Chartered Secretaries Southern Africa and South African Institute of Professional Accountants and for many years served on Committees and the Board of Chartered Secretaries Southern Africa and the International Council of the Institute from 2006 and as a vice president from 2009 to 2011.