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An Overview of Workplace Safety and Health in Kenya

Observing the UN World Day for Safety and Health at Work, 28th April.

By Grace Mukami Muriithi

Workers spend much of their time at work than in any other place. Like any other environment, the workplace is prone to health risks and hazards. Work-related injuries or diseases are obvious in any workplace. Globally, reports indicate that around 6,300 workers succumb to work-related injuries or diseases daily, [1] which is an average of 2.3 million fatalities annually. Fatal and non-fatal on-the-job accidents attributed to poor occupational safety and health practices were approximated at 337 million per year[2]. These accidents result to employee absenteeism from work for prolonged durations. Furthermore, there are over 160 million reported cases of occupational diseases, with a third of these cases resulting to at least four days absence from work annually. This leads to decreased productivity and performance, reduced revenue, and additional costs for compensating workers by firms. Such economic losses can be avoided, prevented, and controlled with the right measures put in place at the workplace.  On households, some of the effects include increased dependency on other household members in cases where individuals are incapacitated and increased financial burden in cases where compensation is not forthcoming and loss of income/jobs.

Source is International Labour Organization website; https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/programmes-projects/safety-health-for-all/lang–en/index.htm

The Constitution of Kenya (2010) Bill of Rights provides that every citizen has right to fair labour practices, reasonable working conditions and clean and healthy environment. The history of Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) in Kenya dates back to the 1950s when the need to have a legal instrument to manage the safety, health and welfare of factory employees became indispensable. The then British government adopted the British Factories Act of 1937. The Act was later amended in 1990 to Factories and Other Places of Work Act to widen its scope of coverage to additional workplaces initially not included under the Factories Act of 1937. Kenya has ratified and adopted 49 ILO Conventions out of which ten are OSH-related. The country compiled its first national profile on OSH in 2004, while the most recent one was compiled in 2013 (ILO, 2013). The profile provides labour market insights necessary for creating a safe and healthy workplace ecosystem in the country.  

In 2007, the Factories and Other Places of Work Act was repealed and replaced by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (2007), [3] commonly known as OSHA 2007. In the same year, the Work Injury Benefits Act (WIBA) [4] was enacted. The Occupational Safety and Health Act promotes safety at workplace, preventing work-related injuries and sickness, while protecting third party individuals from being predisposed to higher risk of injury and sickness associated with activities of people at places of work. The Work Injury Benefits Act was enacted to ensure that workers who sustain work-related injuries and contract diseases that are work-related get compensated. Inspection and enforcement systems exist with a bearing to occupational safety, health, and labour inspections. Inspections related to environment at work, such as safety of workplaces, general health and basic welfare of workers are executed by the Directorate of Occupational Health and Safety Services – DOSHS – to ensure compliance with OSHA (2007). Specifically, the core roles of DOSHS include: inspection of workplaces to foster

compliance with safety and health law; measurement of workplace pollutants for purposes of their control; investigation of occupational accidents and diseases and aiming to prevent recurrence; examination and testing of steam boilers, steam and air receivers, lifts, gas cylinders, cranes chains among other lifting equipment; training on OSH, first aid and fire safety; approving of architectural plans of buildings intended to serve as workplaces; medical examinations of workers; and dissemination of  information on OSH to employers, workers, other key stakeholders and the general public.

Further, there are other laws and regulations touching on OSH and are issued and enforced by other ministries and state departments. Such laws and regulations include: the Mining Act, Cap. 306, No. 2, 2009; the Biosafety Act, the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act, Cap. 254; the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, No. 8, 1999; the Public Health Act, Cap. 242; the Employment Act, No. 11, 2007; the Energy Act, No. 12, 2006; the Radiation and Protection Act, Cap. 243 and the Standards Act, Cap. 496; the Pest Control and Product Act, Cap. 346; the Petroleum (Exploration and Production) Act, Cap. 308. In addition, the National Occupation Safety and Health Policy (2012) established national occupation safety and health systems and programmes designed to improve workplace environment.

DOSHS outlines that occupational accidents should be reported by an employer to the Director of Occupational Health and Safety Services on a prescribed form within 7 days following receipt of accident notice or on learning that an employee has been injured at work. In case of fatal accidents, the accident should be reported within 24 hours by fastest means possible and thereafter in writing to DOSHS within seven days.

The total number of workplaces that are supposed to be inspected by the Directorate is estimated at 140,000, but only around 4,000 (2.9%) workplaces are inspected annually (ILO, 2013). Kenya has a population of 47.5 million people (KPHC, 2019), with a total working population of 18 million. About 3 million are employed in the formal sector and 15 million in the informal sector across the country (KNBS, 2020). DOSHS had 71 professional OSH officers (ILO, 2013). This is only 29 per cent technical capacity, and not sufficient to effectively inspect approximately 140,000 workplaces. This, therefore, leaves most workers exposed to OSH hazards. DOSHS has limited representation in the counties, with only 29 counties covered by the 43 technical staff members. The remaining 18 counties have no officers.

Figure 1: Distribution of DOSHS staff

Source: International Labour Organization (2013)

In Kenya, there are only 75 institutions that indulge in OSH training and awareness creation. This, in addition to master’s degree and postgraduate diploma courses offered by Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), is likely to increase the OSH awareness levels and uptake of OSH training at higher levels of learning, and thus impacting positively on the national OSH profile. The chattered OSH training and educational institutions are categorized into three: fire safety training institutions that provide basic fire safety training at workplaces, for instance fire marshals; OSH training institutions that train workplace OSH committees and increase OSH awareness; and first-aid training institutions that offer statutory basic first-aid course for workplace first-aiders. Figure 2 below shows the categories of OSH-approved training institutions.

Figure 2: OSH Approved training institutions

DOSHS also approves the skills and competency of technical persons involved in inspection of occupational safety and health at workplaces. Of the 329 registered and approved persons by 2012, only 60 per cent were active while the remaining 40 per cent were inactive for unknown reasons. This exacerbates the shortage of OSH human resources.

Table 1: Number of DOSHS approved technical persons under various categories

CategoryRegistered approved personsActive approved persons
Designated health practitioners7738
OSH advisers7549
Fire safety auditors4930
Hoists and lifts examiners1914
Air receivers and cylinders for compressed, liquefied and dissolved gases examiners3220
Boilers, steam receivers and steam containers examiners3219
Cranes, lifting machines, chains, ropes and lifting tackle examiners2818
Air quality monitors30
Refrigeration plants examiners139
Totals329197
Source: DOSHS (2012)

The occupational diseases that an employee may seek compensation for are clearly indicated under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, Cap 236 and the Factories and Other Places of Work Act, Cap 514. Some of the occupational diseases include anthrax, tuberculosis, heat cataract, poisoning by or a compound of lead, manganese, phosphorus, mercury, benzene, nitrous fumes, byssinosis caused by cotton exposure, silicosis caused by exposure to any silica and asbestos caused by exposure to any asbestos, among others. In case of occupational injuries, the Act outlines on compensation to workers or their dependents depending on whether the injury is fatal or non-fatal. WIBA applies to all employees including those employed by the government but excluding members of the armed forces.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) is a 22-member body that is responsible for formulating and reviewing OSH legislations and policies. To successfully undertake its mandate, substantial consultation, coordination and collaboration with key stakeholders and social partners at both the national and enterprise level is undertaken. As such, at national level, workers are represented by an appointed member of the Central Organization of Trade Unions – Kenya (COTU-K) while employers are represented by an appointed member of the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE). Other members include government ministries and agencies, and appointed OSH practitioners.

At the enterprise level, OSHA 2007 facilitates a bipartite approach made possible by the Safety and Health Committees Rules (the Factories and Workplace (Safety and Health Committees) Rules, L.N. No. 31/2004) provisioned under the Act. Under both the Rules and the Act, the employer or occupier of any workplace which regularly employs at least 20 people is required to institute a safety and health committee in the workplace with a fair representation from workers and the management. The committee may, from time to time, invite to its meetings or interview experts when deliberating on OSH issues at workplace. The Director of DOSHS, or his assistants, may attend meetings organized by the committee. The committee is required to meet quarterly. This is to ensure proper consultation, coordination, and prevention of injuries for workplace safety and health.

Nonetheless, there exists some gaps and challenges in implementing occupational safety and health.  For example, DOSHS is the only organization legally mandated to carry out national investigation of occupational diseases, accidents, and dangerous occurrences. With inadequate staffing, this limits the coverage to only 2.8 per cent (4,000) of all the workplaces, leaving a large number (97.1%) uninspected each year. This low inspection coverage could in turn lead to a culture of non-compliance as the possibility of being inspected is very low.

On training and human resources, there is only one university offering OSH-related courses, limiting the number of individuals that can obtain university degree training at any given time. Additionally, of the many approved OSH specialists, majority are not active in their areas of specialty. This further widens the gap on the much-needed technical staff available to ensure OSH service delivery and wide coverage. Another challenge is the few approved laboratories available to undertake inspections, and majority are in Nairobi. This could cause unwanted delays, long waiting durations and increased costs incurred by firms to facilitate the inspection process.

Other emerging issues include the “Big 4” agenda on Manufacturing and Food Security and Nutrition. The government aims at raising the manufacturing sector contribution to GDP from 8.5 per cent to 15 per cent and creating 1 million new jobs by 2022 with a key focus on agro-processing; textile, apparel and leather; and heavy industries such as oil and gas, mining, and iron and steel production.  In the agriculture sector, the government aims at raising the contribution to GDP to 48 per cent by 2022, creation of 1,000 agro-processing SMEs and 600,000 new jobs by capitalizing on production in large scale commercial agriculture and investing in agricultural inputs including mechanical equipment. These two sectors in Kenya are labour-intensive and it only means more workers will be predisposed to occupational accidents and health hazards such as exposure to harmful emissions, dangerous compounds and operational injuries. As such, there is need for national and county governments to invest largely in other sectors that promote safety, health and welfare of all workers in all workplaces.

Another emerging issue is the increasing growth of the informal sector, which is cumulatively the largest employer in the country. The sector contributes over 80 per cent of all new jobs created in the country. However, the sector is characterized by nonconformity to government regulations, making protecting the health and well-being of workers a challenge. It is dominated by Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) that have ease of entry (and exit), engage casual labourers informally, have small scale of operations, family ownership, and unregulated and highly competitive markets. It is paramount, therefore, for the government to ensure safety of all workers including those in informal employment and unregulated environments. OSH measures should not wait for formalization of these enterprises but should be promoted (through trainings and sensitizations) and undertaken to protect workers safety and health while at work.

Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted on livelihoods especially due to closure of workplaces and lockdowns. This has resulted to increased unemployment and economic hardships. In Kenya, the immediate intervention to protect the lives and health of workers was a directive of all workers in non-essential services to adopt remote working mechanisms and those in office to maintain social distancing, wearing of facemasks among other guidelines, and prevention measures as guided by the Ministry of Health. At institutional levels, different interventions were initiated to promote occupational health and safety of workers during the pandemic. They included staff sensitization and awareness creation about the virus and preventative measures, fumigation of workplaces and supply of protective materials to workers such as facemasks and hand sanitizers. Health workers in hospitals and isolation centres are also provided with specialized personal protective materials and equipment. Nonetheless, governments around the world have tried to maintain delivery of essential services and a gradual opening of the economies to protect businesses and job.  However, economic activities should never come at the expense of workers’ health or lives. As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, ensuring occupational safety and health should constitute a crucial policy to revive the labour market safety, and hence stringent COVID-19 prevention and mitigation actions should be adopted at all workplaces in Kenya.

In regard to application of OSH with the new working from home measures, OSHA refers to workplace as any premise, location, land, vessel or thing, at, in, upon, or near which, a worker is, in the course of employment. As such, working remotely from home or own premises is also considered as a workplace but the responsibility of exercising due care of the ‘workspace’ is mainly transferred to the workers. OSHA does not comprehensively cover a situation where working from home is the daily routine and, therefore, the Act does not offer further guidelines in regard to health and safety of employees while they work from home. Nonetheless, this should not deter workers from reporting work-related accidents and diseases associated with working from home as investigations can be conducted to establish such claims through DOSHS. Employers should initiate a reporting system for any work-related accidents, injuries and illnesses that may occur while working from home. In addition, employers are also encouraged to create awareness and sensitization and provide workers with resources for setting up an ergonomic workstation at home, such as sensitizing workers on better housekeeping practices such as position of electronic cords, how to clear clutter and proper storage of  heavy and sharp items and provision of resources such as laptops, internet connectivity and orthopedic chairs. Therefore, there is need to review the OSH Act to accommodate the evolution and changing dynamics of workplaces such as working from home and digital labour platforms.

In conclusion, unsafe and unhealthy work environment may cause accidents, diseases and environmental pollution likely to result to economic and social burden to individuals, businesses, and the government. The existing gaps and challenges should be addressed immediately to prevent further losses associated to OSH. There is need to recruit and deploy additional staff for the DOSHS to enable the institution to fully implement its mandate in all areas and inspecting all the workplaces in the country. This will also enable DOSHS improve on its service delivery by reaching a wider coverage and more so, presence in all the 47 counties. Other interventions necessary would be commissioning or building the capacities of other universities to train OSH-related courses to bridge the gap on inadequate staffing at DOSHS and specialists within the OSH field. In addition, investing in more inspection and investigation laboratories outside of Nairobi will help improve on service delivery. It is also important to refocus on the growing informal sector and measures to promote and enforce OSH regulations. This overview relied on data availed during the 2013 national OSH profile for Kenya; as such, there is need to enhance regular data collection and sharing with key stakeholders and the general public for policy formulation and implementation.


[1] ILO (2010). Safety and Health and Work, Retrieved from http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/ lang–en/index.htm.

[2] ILO (2013). National Profile on Occupational Safety and Health for Kenya

[3] Occupational Safety and Health Act, 2007. Available online at http://www.kenyalaw.org

[4] Work Injury Benefit Act, 2007. Available online at http://www.kenyalaw.org

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