Kwakwani trail accident exposes occupational safety hazards bauxite workers face

Dear Editor,
The Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU) is deeply grieved and disturbed over the accident on the Kwakwani trail involving bauxite workers on June 30 where two died, 15 were injured and others traumatized. We send our condolences to the families of those who died and to the injured and to those who remain traumatized know that we feel your pain and suffering. This fatal accident occurred in a company assigned vehicle, on a company road, when workers were being transported to work. This is an industrial accident resulting from negligence and gross occupational safety and health shortcomings which highlights the risk bauxite workers face on a daily basis.  We are reminded that accidents do not just happen but are themselves a result of failure to observe measures appropriate to their prevention.

This road is built from bauxite waste which over the years requires constant maintenance due to its construction materials and the heavy industrial and other traffic that traverses it. Formerly a grader was assigned to maintain the road, making it safe for traffic. This is no longer being done and as such the road has deteriorated to the point where workers’ transportation has to leave much earlier to meet to work on time on a journey that would normally be much shorter. There are times when traversing the road becomes so bad that it takes more than 2 1/2 times what it would normally take. The absence of safety signs to forewarn drivers of the dangerous bend in the road and its deteriorating conditions are also a factor of safety that is missing. The accident resulted from a collision of on-coming vehicles at a dangerous turn. Compounding the safety issue is the use of an unsuitable vehicle (minibus) for such conditions as opposed to a more rugged terrain vehicle. It is the responsibility of the employer to take into consideration the safety of every employee before and during the contract of service to transport them from one place to another. 

As the worst accident in the Kwakwani area, while the Union is encouraged at the efforts made to save lives, it will not be satisfied to be told that this is as far as it goes. We need a root cause analysis to determine all factors contributing to this very sad loss of lives and injuries and immediate short and long term measures to be implemented so that such situations of hazards are removed or minimized in the daily lives of bauxite workers. 

Occupational Health and Safety breaches present a threat to labour’s safety and this is not a matter to be taken lightly nor can it be compromised. The safety of workers at the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BGCI) has been compromised for some time now and all efforts made by the Union to have the Ministry of Labour address these problems have been ignored. In May 2009 workers were forced to protest unsafe working conditions when the company had them working with malfunctioning vehicles. Some workers fell ill and one is now permanently disabled. When workers took action consistent with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 98:10 (OSHA), BCGI suspended some in clear violation of the Act. The continued refusal of the Ministry of Labour to act in the interests of bauxite workers to resolve their grievances heightens the belief that BCGI’s disregard for the laws has the full support of an uncaring Government. The May 2009 safety violation cannot be separated from the June 2010 accident.  As recent as May 2010 the Union again wrote Chief Labour Officer, Yoganand Persaud requesting conciliation in the 2009 occupational safety and health dispute to undo the wrong done to workers in accordance with OSHA laws and bring about an improvement in working conditions. 15 months after, and with more injuries and loss of lives, he still refuses to act.

GB&GWU asks Minister Nadir, Yoganand Persaud, as well as civic society how long can you  continue to turn a blind eye or give tacit support to practices that violate workers’ rights, threaten their lives, limbs and livelihood. How long can you ignore the endangerment of bauxite workers? Like sugar workers and every worker of this country bauxite workers must be treated with respect. Workers are not inanimate resources, neither are they expendable; they are human and the most essential element in the line of production. The Government has a moral and legal duty to the people and is ultimately responsible for bringing an end to workplace grievances, injuries, disabilities, loss of income and lives and it can no longer escape culpability and must therefore act now.
Yours faithfully,
Carlton Sinclair
GB&GWU Branch President
Aroaima/Kwakwani

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