On May 20, 18 workers of Qualfon’s Call Centre at Goedverwagting had to be rushed to the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation in various states of consciousness and some of them in hysterics.
It appears as if the mechanical ventilation system failed after a power outage and this led to oppressive conditions because of the manner in which the building is constructed. There appeared not to have been an orderly and structured response to the event. Qualfon was noticeably reticent on May 20 about releasing information about the incident and subsequently issued a press release with some details but not enough. It said that the building lost power because of a faulty breaker and due to a power drain on the battery, the air conditioning units stopped functioning. It said that ”soon after”, management terminated operations and invited employees to step outside for fresh air. It added that in a calm and orderly manner around 250 employees left the building through the front door and did not require the use of three emergency exists.
Qualfon is a major employer here for business process outsourcing (BPO) and is making a huge investment on the East Bank which is expected to yield several thousand more jobs. The country is undoubtedly grateful for this investment but at the same time wants to be assured that the working conditions of the hundreds employed there are satisfactory and in line with the standards for the industry. BPO facilities in some places can be really cramped operations.
In light of the May 20th incident, there is more that should be found out to assure the workers of Qualfon and the general public that the conditions are acceptable and the required contingency measures are in place. When contacted by Stabroek News on the incident, Guyana Fire Service Public Relations Officer, Andrew Holder said there had been a power failure at the building on the day in question and the back-up power supply that was automated, failed to kick in and the situation escalated because there was no proper system in place in the event that the mechanical ventilation failed. Additionally, Holder told this newspaper that the evacuation efforts were not done in a timely manner. “Too many people were in an enclosed room without proper ventilation,” he said.
Others who had recounted the incident to Stabroek News had spoken about the stifling heat in the building after the power failure causing employees to faint. This and the other issues raised by Mr Holder require careful investigation.
The Ministry of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Department has not yet been heard from in relation to this incident despite several queries by Stabroek News. One would expect that the OSH department is diligently following up this matter on several tracks. First, it must endeavour to speak to all of the employees who had to be rushed to the hospital that day for a detailed account of what transpired with each of them. It must also have access to the other employees who were there that day and also to the supervisors and managers who were present on that shift.
Second, it must appraise what systems Qualfon had in place to handle emergencies of this nature and whether these were applied. Was there sufficient first aid assistance for those who needed it and was there a plan for an orderly eacuation to a safe area? Is the OSH unit at Qualfon able to discharge the functions that are required of it?
Third, one would expect that the OSH would undertake an inspection of the building in question. Given the need for an enclosed facility to limit noise interference with the BPO work is the Goedverwagting building properly laid out? Should there be more natural ventilation to counter emergencies such as the one on May 20? Can conditions in the facility become overbearingly hot? These are some of the areas that the Ministry’s OSH unit should be considering.
The Ministry of Labour never fails to observe the annual international OSH Day rituals as it did recently. However, those observances have fallen short of the expected interventions in cases where OSH issues have arisen. There have been multiple events at the five-storey building that has gone up on Camp and Robb streets but no word as yet as to whether the ministry has formally taken up these matters and investigated them. Last week several employees of RUSAL’s BCGI were injured at its mine site, a company that doesn’t have an impressive record in relation to workers’ rights. Saturday’s death of a tug operator at the Demerara Harbour Bridge would be another case to investigate. There have been several other cases where there has been no discernible action taken by the ministry.
OSH measures can only succeed and have the required impact if the public is able to see that their interest is being protected and the requisite actions are being taken by the Ministry of Labour against the culpable. There has been no report released to the public with such details. The incident at Qualfon on May 20 provides another opportunity for the ministry to show that it intends to fully discharge its OSH mandate and that in so doing the interests of hundreds of Guyanese will be adequately looked after.