Minister Keith Scott’s zero workplace fatality pronouncement

It would be churlish, to say the least, to deny the Occupational Safety and Health Unit (OSHU) of the Ministry of Social Protection whatever credit it might have earned for improving the quality of its service. This is particularly so in the areas of, first, diligently and professionally investigating workplace accidents and, second, continually implementing safety measures that significantly reduce such accidents and consequential loss of life, injury and workplace downtime.

The fact is that over the years and due to deficiencies, not all of which have been of its own making, the OSHU has been unable to make anything even remotely resembling a persuasive case for being considered a high-performing agency. The reality is that the transgression of safety regulations at both public and private sector workplaces and accidents continue unchecked; investigations into accidents take forever to be completed, and issues of compensation for injury and/or loss of life are frequently not settled in a manner that is pleasing to the victims and their families.

There have been instances too in which the OSHU has caused suspicions to be raised about the integrity of its operations by displaying a bewildering evasiveness in engaging the media in instances where queries might arise in relation to its probes and their findings. One might add (and this newspaper has raised these matters before) that the Ministry of Social Protection remains unable to provide a persuasive update on responding to workers’ persistent complaints about safety deficiencies at the partially state-owned Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI) operations or to provide any further details on the health risks to which Guyana Revenue Authority employees occupying the Camp street complex may be exposed.

All of that notwithstanding, the OSHU and the Ministry of Social Protection as a whole still have a perfectly understandable desire to burnish the unit’s public image. One might add, however, that it must seek to do so in a manner that is persuasive, that is to say, that such claims as are made about the work and the accomplishments of the OSHU must be both coherent and credible.

Last week the Government Information Agency issued a statement attributing to Minister in the Ministry of Social Protection, Keith Scott, the assertion that workplace deaths for 2017 had decreased by 100 per cent, that is to say that the OSHU has not been made aware of any workplace fatality for the year so far. Reducing and where possible, eradicating workplace deaths, should, of course, be part of the focus of the work of the OSHU and where this is realized it has every right to say so. In this instance, however, there is a perplexing absence of context to the zero workplace deaths assertion being made in the statement.

One might have thought that what the OSHU clearly considers to be a significant statistic ought to have been clothed in attendant facts that would have lent it much greater credibility. Surely, it could have been presented against the backdrop of a broader, more comprehensive report on workplace safety (perhaps for the first quarter of 2017) that allowed for a clearer insight into the nexus between the zero fatalities assertion and the direct contribution of the work of the OSHU to that accomplishment. Can the Ministry, for example, provide any clear nexus between reduced workplace accidents and its own workplace safety education programme? Has there been a significant stepping up of safety-related inspections at workplaces, particularly high-risk ones and engagements with employers/managers to ensure that safety deficiencies are remedied? What about those long-standing safety transgressors in both the public and private sectors? Has the OSHU taken any definitive action in recent months to have those remedied? And what about the OSHU itself? Has the unit made any significant progress in remedying its own operating weaknesses including what it says has been a scarcity of skills?

The point about all this is that while – as has already been mentioned – one can understand the OSHU wanting to change the public’s perception of its performance, to make the entirely isolated point about zero workplace fatalities for the year so far, and thereafter to seek to establish, without any persuasive evidence whatsoever, a link between the absence of fatalities and the work of the OSHU amounts to no more than a disingenuous effort at image enhancement.

What this kind of pronouncement and its attendant claims ignore is the fact that many workplace safety transgressions, by their very nature, cannot be concealed. Safety gear and other safety deficiencies at construction sites continue to be on public display whilst workers in the gold-mining and other sectors continue to bemoan employers’ indifference to an absence of basic safety measures. Arising out of these very public and persistent transgressions and in the absence of any verifiable remedial measures, the much likelier message which the OSHU’s zero fatalities message sends is that the absence of such fatalities has little if anything to do with the stepping up of preventative measures.

This brings us to the wider issue of what has long been the practice by government agencies of pressing the state media into service in an effort to conceal underperformance, mask incompetence and undeservedly burnish images. Government, for some inexplicable reason, refuses to accept first, that there is no inevitable nexus between the dissemination of messages, on the one hand and the passive acceptance of those messages, on the other, by their target audiences. Those messages must compete with what increasingly are tendencies towards selective perception by more enlightened audiences. The value of trite and transparent propaganda has long lost its currency in an age of considerably greater awareness and public enlightenment.