Public, private sector indifference to workplace safety and health

Up to the time of the writing of this editorial neither the public nor the private sector had bothered to make a public comment on the fact that there were two workplace accidents on the two preceding Fridays; the first in the bauxite industry and the second in the rice sector.

The first, an electrical explosion, resulted in severe and potentially disfiguring burns to an electrician employed by the Bauxite Company Guyana Inc (BCGI), a company in which the Government of Guyana is a shareholder.

The second occurred when a rice storage silo gave way, burying a hapless teenage employee of Caricom Rice Mills beneath a mountain of paddy. The two, it would appear, are not enough to draw focused attention to the issue of safety and health as a workplace concern here in Guyana.

If we must await the findings of the official probes – which, hopefully, will be expedited by the Ministry of Labour – before making a more incisive comment, fingers have been pointed at the companies concerned and questions raised as to whether the accidents may not have been entirely avoidable in a more mindful safety environment. Based on discourses with an informed source it would seem that, on the whole and in both the public and private sectors, there exists a lack of mindfulness of the importance of safety and health as a component of workplace management.

We may have an Occupational Safety and Health Act but that, we are told, is now in need of much amending and upgrading. That having been said, both the public and private sector are well adrift of the requirement under the law as it exists today. One of those requirements is that workplaces have statutory safety and health committees.

We recollect a particular case several months ago in which the Ministry of Labour was less than forthcoming in the matter of a workplace accident in which several workers were injured, thankfully, none particularly seriously. Nor do we have any recollection of a report on the particular accident being made public as is the requirement under the law.

Here, there may be more in the mortar than in the pestle. While the posture of the Ministry had led to suggestions that ‘something funny’ was going on, that may not have been the case at all. Indeed, we understand that as far as accident investigation is concerned the Ministry does not have anywhere even remotely close to an adequate number of qualified and experienced persons to conduct such investigations.

In the case of the Caricom Rice Mills incident we understand that the faulty storage tank ought to have been known to the company, if, indeed, a leaking storage tank was the problem; and while we understand that it is the job of the Ministry of Labour to carry out inspections of such plant and machinery periodically, we were told of cases in which such inspections have simply never been carried out.

It has been suggested that the fact the safety record in both the public and private sectors is not a good deal worse than it is at this time, is as much a function of good fortune as anything else. The point was made by Safety and Health Consultant Mr Dale Beresford in a story published in this newspaper that the risk of a significant increase in workplace accidents becomes greater as we erect taller buildings, use more sophisticated equipment and engage in more high-risk pursuits in search of economic development. The best way to mitigate the risks to the safety and health of workers, then, is to point the finger directly at the leaders in the public and private sectors and the trade unions – who also have a weighty responsibility in this matter – and to urge they the move with haste to clean up our Occupational Safety and Health Act.

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