There was something decidedly farcical about the recent National Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) Awards ceremony. Of course, to make the argument that high safety and health standards at the workplace is a joint employer/employee obligation is not to say that those standards should not be recognized and perhaps even rewarded. However, one might argue that there ought to be some measure of context to these ceremonies, that is to say that they should, in some way, make a point about just how serious we are about safety and health at the workplace and how assiduously we work, both in the public and private sectors, to ensure that those standards are upheld.
The fact that the Linden Hospital Complex was the only state-run entity to be cited at the NACOSH ceremony speaks volumes about what, for many years, has been a pattern of official indifference to issues of safety and health at the workplace. There are three areas of safety and health practice in which government has been weighed and found decidedly wanting. The first is its studied indifference to keeping its own house in order insofar as the conditions in many state-run entities, particularly primary schools, are concerned. Frankly, the physical conditions which children and teachers are exposed to in some schools are a downright disgrace). The second is what has been described as a slovenly official attitude to ensuring the effective enforcement of health and safety protocols in workplaces and at work sites (and here the gold and bauxite mining sub sectors come to mind). The third is the length of time that it takes what is now the Ministry of Social Protection to professionally investigate workplace incidents/accidents, report on them and make professional recommendations, not only to punish transgressors but also to seek to minimize repetition of accidents.
A critical yardstick by which responsible entrepreneurship is measured is in the extent to which business leaders demonstrate a mindfulness of their obligation to create a healthy and safe workplace environment and since the NACOSH event ought to have been, among other things, a forum for some sort of introspection it would have been more than useful to reflect on just how well we are doing in that regard. True, a number of private companies – Demerara Distillers Limited, Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation, Massy Gas Products Guyana Limited and National Milling Company of Guyana Incorporated – were among those named in the post-event GINA release. That is all well and good though it would have been even better if we were able to learn through the event just what progress the Government of Guyana has made to persuade the Russian management of the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI) to significantly improve its on-site health and safety bona fides; it would also have been useful to learn whether the Ministry of Education has in mind any special initiative this year to improve the standard of sanitation facilities in at least some of the schools across the country that are lacking in that regard.
Contextually, we must ask ourselves just how much assurance Social Protection Minister Amna Ally would have provided that health and safety are high on the government’s priority list in circumstances where there are instances (and BCGI is only one of those) in which it has displayed an unacceptable leaden-footedness in effectively executing its enforcement role. The fact is that while there are those who do, there is evidence that there are leaders in both the public and private sectors who don’t seem to care too much about establishing effective systems for managing occupational safety and health and inculcating a culture of prevention in the daily duties of workers and employers in order to sustain safe practices, which is what Minister Ally told the event the NACOSH awards are all about. These clichés have long assumed a certain hollowness in their articulation and there is no law that says that successive administrations are obliged to slavishly recite them in circumstances where a point is reached where they are not even worth the paper they are written on.
Events like the NACOSH Awards Ceremony are not just occasions for the articulation of pleasantries and niceness, they really ought to be, as well, occasions for sober reflection. More than that, the event ought to have articulated a sense of just how critical issues of health and safety ought to be to Guyana, going forward, particularly given the current challenges of the mining sector and the imminently arriving ones of the oil and gas sector. In addition, the event ought to have – among other things – provided some insight as just where we are as public and private sectors and collectively, as a country, insofar as our adherence to acceptable safety and health standards is concerned. That consideration was, sadly, missing from the event.