Nearly 20 Qualfon workers were hospitalised yesterday afternoon after falling ill at the company’s Plaisance Call Centre, following a suspected heat build-up after a power outage.
The power outage at the facility and the failure of its backup generator preceded the chaos at the site at around 4:30pm, when some of the workers began screaming and panting for breath while others were writhing on the floor.
The building was evacuated soon after but the confusion continued outside at the entrance and the convulsing and fainting workers were rushed to the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). The Call Centre building is without windows and with over 300 workers said to be on site for the 4pm to midnight shift when the power failure occurred, the heat in the absence of the functioning air-conditioning units is suspected to have contributed to the workers falling ill.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Qualfon official at the company’s Beterverwagting head office said it was a heat build-up in the atmosphere that caused some of the employees to faint. However, he said most of them were stable and their families were contacted.
The official further indicated that occupation safety officers were sent to the hospital to monitor the situation and should be making contact soon with the Labour Ministry. He also stated that the company is expected to resume work at the building by today.
The official denied that there was commotion at the facility and he explained that there was a Guyana Power and Light Inc (GPL) power failure and staffers were moved from the inside of the building. He said they were told to go outside to get fresh air as they awaited transportation to carry them to the company’s head office, where they would resume work.
When Stabroek News visited the Plaisance site, several workers were falling to the ground and crying out about pain, while some were fainting and vomiting. Others were seen lifting unconscious colleagues and placing them in chairs and fanning them.
A company official at the scene told the media that there was no commotion and staffers were not ill. He was saying this as three workers were lifted into a vehicle to be carried to the hospital. “It’s a typical blackout and we are following emergency procedures… we are protecting our staff. It’s just a blackout,” he said, while shielding employees from speaking to the media.
Some workers were scared to recount what happened in the building and while the media was speaking to some of them they were ordered back into the premises and instructed not to say anything.
A supervisor said that since they were responsible for staffers’ security, they were cautioning them not to speak.
But one employee related that he was working at his desk when the blackout occurred and then suddenly some staffers started making strange noises and screaming. He said he saw several of them faint.
At approximately 5pm, five employees arrived at the GPHC in a minivan; three emerged unconscious, while the other two exited the car and they were all wheeled into the emergency room. Within a half of an hour, a bus arrived with six more employees—two of the six were also unconscious. Some were crying, while others were gasping for air and writhing in pain.
Among the first to arrive were Marcia Blenman, 24, Lorriann Douglas and Shonelle Wilburg, 19. According to employees, who declined to be named, the pandemonium started at 4:30pm—half of an hour after the 4 to 12 midnight shift began.
“The light went off,” said an employee, adding, “then the generator refused to come on.” That employee further stated that it was after the generator failed, supervisors decided to take them out of the building.
Two hours after, a supervisor arrived at the hospital kicking and screaming. She had to be restrained by three male employees. She was sedated along with other employees.
Relatives of the workers were outraged that they were unable to see their loved ones at the hospital last night. Scores of persons milled about the compound in front of the Accident & Emergency (A&E) Unit, all in an attempt to gain some information on the condition of their relatives.
Persons who had been waiting for medical attention were sent out as the Qualfon employees, in various states of consciousness, were brought in.
Families who attempted to enter the unit were met with closed doors. Angrily, they pounded on the windows and peered inside to catch a glimpse of what was going on within.
A number of arguments erupted between members of the public and hospital security until around 7pm a stick-wielding female officer was placed at the unit’s entrance to maintain order.
Up to press time, some employees were still being treated in the emergency unit while others were treated and sent home.