Putting workplace safety and health on a higher national plain

By Dale Beresford

It comes as no surprise to me that in the wake of three serious workplace accidents in coastal Guyana in about three weeks neither the Ministry of Labour, the private sector nor the trade union movement have issued a substantive statement on these accidents. That is simply a reflection of the prevailing widespread stakeholder insensitivity to the matter of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) at the workplace.

One might have thought that the fact that in one instance a young man lost his life, another worker had a leg cut off and a third was badly burnt might have focused a far greater measure of attention on the incidents. That has turned not to be the case.

Informed pronouncements on the three accidents must of course await the findings of the obligatory reports by the Ministry of Labour and we must hope that the said reports are forthcoming with a measure of alacrity.

Dale Beresford
Dale Beresford

This brings us to another matter. Personally, I question the wisdom of lumping OSH and substantive industrial relations matters under the same administrative stream since the fact is that they represent entirely different professional pursuits.

Perhaps more to the point, I venture to suggest that as currently constituted the Ministry of Labour lacks the capacity to deliver effectively on its OSH obligations.

I believe OSH needs to be decoupled from the various other pursuits of the Ministry of Labour and there should be an accelerated regime of training for officers carrying out these particular functions.

The lack of capacity on the ministry’s part in matters of OSH is no contrivance on my part. I am aware that part of its responsibility is to undertake periodic workplace inspections in order to secure a regular and reliable understanding of the OSH bona fides of those workplaces. It would be interesting to learn about both the periodicity and the findings of those inspections.

Of course, blame in these respects cannot be placed at the door of the public servants who serve in the Ministry of Labour. The efficiencies that will ultimately enhance the national OSH regime must derive from policies that will be reflected in the volume of resources that are assigned to the creation of an effective safety and health regime.

Delinking OSH has to be part of a broader process of reviewing and overhauling the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Oddly enough, if OSH is decoupled from labour it is entirely possible that this might help to reduce the number of industrial relations disputes. It occurs to me that a significant percentage of industrial disputes derive from workplace safety and health matters. Both the recently announced strike by GuySuco’s workers at the Wales estate and the ongoing strike at the University of Guyana are, in some measure, a function of OSH issues; so that if more attention is paid to safety and health at the workplace it is not unlikely that there would be fewer industrial relations disputes.

It would, of course, be entirely hypocritical to pin all of the blame for our shabby industrial relations climate on the policymakers. Trade unions and employers are equally culpable.

In the latter case what we have witnessed at some workplaces and amongst some employers is a callous disregard for the physical and emotional welfare of workers. The realization of material objectives is put first.

Trade unions have a great deal of responsibility too. For instance, it would be useful to know just how many unions representing workers are an active part of OSH workplace committees as provided for under the law.

The primary purpose of this is to properly position unions not only to effectively oversee workplace OSH regimes but also to help manage those regimes and to play a central role in administering OSH issues.

I venture to say that it does not appear that the labour movement is taking workplace OSH issues as seriously as it should.

Of course, in circumstances where a significant number of workers are non-unionized it falls to the employers themselves to be mindful of the welfare of their workers.

Here again, the available evidence suggests that there are far too many employers who demand that their employees produce at high levels of efficiency without being mindful of their reciprocal responsibility for the welfare of those workers.

I return to the matter of the recent workplace accidents to make a particular point. I have noted that in the cases of both Caricom Rice Mills and Pooran Brothers the employers have apparently made offers of compensation.

The term compensation, as far as I am aware, suggests, an admission of some level of company culpability, so that other issues that go beyond whether or not compensation is paid or otherwise, arise.

That apart, I do not believe that the matter of compensation should simply be a bilateral matter between the companies and the families. Assuming that an understanding, in principle, is reached on the issue on compensation I believe that both the companies and the victims should be suitably represented since issues relating to arriving at an appropriate financial level of compensation are technical. We ought not to have a situation in which what is agreed is not simply a matter between the companies and the families of the victims.

What has also come to my attention is a report in the media attributing to Minister of Labour Dr N K Gopaul a pronouncement alluding to the possibility that Caricom Rice Mills could be shut down if investigations confirm that the management is liable for the accident. Personally, I am inclined to the view that such a pronouncement as both indelicate and unnecessary since it comes during a period when, presumably, an official investigation into the accident is ensuing. Setting aside the fact that such a pronouncement is hardly appropriate at this time, one has to question the wisdom of closing down the facility—assuming that the minister did make the remark attributed to him—rather than proceeding with a thorough investigation that might benefit the OSH regime in the rice milling sector as a whole.

A point may now have been reached where we need to undertake a comprehensive re-examination of both our OSH culture and our OSH legislation. In the case of the former there is clearly a need for stakeholders – government, trade unions and employers to demonstrate an enhanced sensitivity to the welfare of workers.

And here, in the light of the prevailing conditions at the University of Guyana, I include students. I recall making a comment to this very newspaper recently to the effect that our current preoccupation with what we term “development” may well be resulting in a loss of the human touch, which includes care and concern for our greatest resource: our workers.

In conclusion I make the point that we are challenged to be more mindful of our OSH practices if only because our development agenda includes bigger, taller buildings, foreign investment in gold mines and the necessity to use technologically advanced and in some instances more dangerous tools.

The element of risk becomes greater hence the need to tighten our laws, revisit our regulations and be much more mindful of the safety of workers.

It concerns me that up until now there has been little serious public discourse on the subject of development and workplace safety and health. That discourse has to start without delay.

Dale Beresford is a Workplace Safety Solutions Specialist

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