Bettering our abysmal workplace safety and health credentials

We take our role as a “business supplement” to mean, among other things, that we have a responsibility to report not only on substantive business issues but on related ones as well, that is, matters which we feel have a critical bearing on business and the economy.

Not only do we believe that—for obvious reasons—issues of occupational safety and health are business-related issues, we also believe that—on the basis of the available evidence—far too little official attention is paid to the safety and health of our work force, in both the public and private sectors. We believe too, that if this trend persists the overall capacity of the country’s already limited workforce will inevitably be diminished and that that will have implications for the health of the country’s economy.

It is for this reason, primarily, that we have not only been following health and safety issues in recent weeks but have also been consulting with Mr Dale Beresford, who, this week, addresses yet another issue on the topic in the Stabroek Business.

We share Mr Beresford’s view that for all its importance to worker welfare and to the collective national good, the issue of workplace safety and health is not one that dwells in the public consciousness for any extended period of time. It is precisely for that reason that there are at least four instances of recent workplace accident—including one in which the victim lost his life—in which we have heard nothing from the Ministry of Labour whose task it is to conduct an investigation.

Mr Beresford has made two points in this regard; the first being that it is the outcomes of those investigations that lay a lawful foundation for determining issues of compensation. The second and equally important point was made in the context of a concern that the long delay in completing the reports may well have to do with a lack of capacity on the part of the Labour Ministry.

But there is another concern that preoccupies us. That is, what Mr Beresford says, is evidence of widespread indifference to safety and health protocols and practices by some employers, a tendency which, he feels, is at least partially attributable to what they sense to be the lack of any real capacity on the part of the Ministry of Labour to effectively enforce the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

So that—at least so it seems—we are left with a situation in which there are written rules that for one reason or another are not being enforced; as a consequence of which our workforce continues to be diminished.

In the course of our engagement with Mr Beresford we have, on his recommendation, gone to a few work sites and found that some of the points he makes about safety and the extent to which workers are protected are perfectly true. And while we have not visited any of the interior mining sites, we, like Mr Beresford, wonder aloud as to whether safety and health practices are keeping pace with the expansion of the mining sector.

It is, in the first instance, a matter of both the Ministry of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) functionaries and employers of labour understanding their particular roles under the law and the importance of performing those roles effectively for the sake of the workforce and the economy. But it is also a matter of being sensitized to the relevance of OSH as a workplace creed and it is for the government to lead the way in providing the functionaries with the capacity, training and resources, to perform this important task competently. Besides that, it is also for the authorities to remove such obstacles as might exist to public officials performing their functions dispassionately and to those employers who are answerable under the law being able to circumvent the law.

One of the regrettable consequences of the workplace safety and health confronting Guyana is what is often the consequential exploitation of workers who sustain on-the-job illnesses and injuries and whose families—as Mr Beresford points out in today’s article—are then subjected to what, often, are humiliating bilateral exchanges with employers the outcomes of which, frequently, do not bring real compensation.

As Mr Beresford points out compensation considerations are taken account of in the investigation process so that when then process is not pursued ‘settlements’ become arbitrary, influenced as they then are by the balance of power between the victim and the employer.

We are satisfied that this is an issue that is sufficiently important to command room in the public space and we are also sufficiently concerned to wonder aloud about the positions of the business support organisations (BSOs) in this matter. Certainly, we are not aware that the BSOs have any particular track record on the matter of safety and health though we believe that it might help if they did. The same of course is true of the country’s major private sector employers and public sector entities. The time, we feel, is right, for the public to be able to scrutinizer their workplace safety and health credentials.

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