It was indeed a sad day in Canje 43 years ago. Thousands of Guyanese flocked to Rose Hall Estate to determine what happened at the factory. They wanted to know what had happened to their loved ones who dedicated their lives to the sugar industry in Guyana. Their siblings left for work early on January 13, 1970. Seven of these workers did not return home alive. The sequence of events which led to the death of these men has been analyzed by several individuals for the specific purpose of avoiding similar industrial accidents.
At the factory, everything was normal between 7am and 8am. Two men were assigned the task of cleaning the No 3 clarifier. They were supervised by process foreman Abdul Gafoor. However, shortly after 8am, shouts were heard, and several workers were seen running to and from the clarifier. Gafoor emerged from the No 3 clarifier and ran to the No 4 quad where a switchboard was located.
At the switchboard, he obtained a drop cord with a bulb at the end. He used this device to see what was going on in the clarifier. He saw the two workers unconscious.
He then descended into the clarifier for the express purpose of rendering assistance to the workers. He fell on the scroll of the clarifier while descending. Gafoor lost his life in a brave attempt to save the lives of both of his workers.
Another process foreman by the name of Peters was informed that Gafoor had fallen into the clarifier. Peters took the precautionary measure of having a rope placed inside the clarifier. The rope was tied to a 6″ pipe. Peters then entered the clarifier. After descending about four feet, Peters found his nostrils burning and breathing was difficult. He then pulled the rope and was barely pulled out of the clarifier. He lost consciousness shortly after, but was able to survive.
Yassim Khan, a welder, was able to pull him to safety. He was only about forty feet from the clarifier.
Carron, a porter employed by the factory came on the scene. He tied a rope around himself with the intention of rescuing the workers. However, before he could enter, Dhanpaul Baijnauth pushed him aside and hurried through the manhole.
As Dhanpaul was going down, he shouted out that there were six or seven men at the bottom of the clarifier, including three other workers – Parboo, Seepersaud Sarjudas and Ranjeet Boodram. In fact, he became the seventh victim. These men died in an effort to save the lives of their fellow workers. Their actions represent bravery on the part of all of the workers. An extensive investigation was launched into the underlying causes of the accident.
As a result of the fatal accident, Edward Luckhoo, the acting Governor General of Guyana, ordered a Commission of Inquiry. Kenneth Stoby headed the commission which issued its report in May 1970. It concluded that the men died from the dangerous gases in the clarifier such as hydrogen sulphide. This gas was caused by fermentation that existed from the presence of mud and other matter in the clarifier.
The commissioners pointed out that there was no uniform system in place to clean the clarifiers and there was a failure to comply with the provisions of the Factories (Safety) Regulations of 1953. These regulations clearly stipulated that workers must be provided with breathing apparatus and/or safety belts and ropes when cleaning the clarifier. The report also faulted the company for other failures.
For instance, the process foreman and cleaners did not ensure that the mud valve was dismantled. This was a necessary step before the workers entered the clarifier, as required by established procedures
The report called for, inter alia, adequate training for workers who are charged with the responsibility of cleaning clarifiers; written instructions to workers on proper procedures for the cleaning of equipment and a record kept of the individuals who have been issued these instructions; and more frequent factory inspections by qualified officers of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.