The Department of Labour’s safety and health ‘alliance’

Taken at surface level Minister Keith Scott’s disclosure in his post-budget presentation in the National Assembly earlier this week regarding the creation of an “alliance” designed to help curb the incidence of workplace accidents in the various high risk sectors is an interesting one particularly since, outside of mining and the traditional areas where workplace accidents occur with some regularity, the Minister has also based on his presentation in the National Assembly embraced the oil and gas and aviation sectors, which, going forward will assume an increasing prominence in the country’s economy, as part of the alliance.

The problem with these kinds of public pronouncements, of course, is that the proof of the pudding is usually in the eating and it has, presumably, occurred to Minister Scott that if his alliance is to have any traction with workplaces and the various other publics concerned with safety and health he is going to have to say much more about the structure of the alliance, how it fits into the broader safety and health policy and how it will work in practice. One makes this point cognizant of the polemical dimension to post-budget debates, not least the propensity on all sides of the House to blow what one might call tuneless trumpets. If it turns out that Minister Scott’s alliance is reflective of a genuine attempt on the part of government to grasp the nettle of workplace accidents with their attendant serious injuries and fatalities then he must spell out with the greatest of clarity those critical areas in which the ‘alliance’  will play operational and perhaps oversight roles. The problems of safety at workplaces, including state-run workplaces in Guyana range from the one extreme of managerial indifference to safety and health issues to failure to invest in the requisite safety and health infrastructure and in creating a relevant role for Safety and Health Committees which can prove invaluable in the area of permanent monitoring of the safety and health status of workplaces.

Whilst current attention as far as safety and health issues is focused primarily on the mining sector where, frankly, loss of life is often due to blatant greed, recklessness and callous disregard for human life, there are several workplaces regulated by government or at least where they have some vested interest where indifference to safety and health is patently obvious.

When this newspaper asked Guyana Trades Union Congress General Secretary Lincoln Lewis to comment on the safety and health status of the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI)  in which the Russian Company RUSAL has a majority stake but in which the Government of Guyana has a minority share, he immediately drew attention not only to what he said were various safety and health anomalies which he said were par for the course at BCGI but to what he says has been the overwhelming indifference of the Department of Labour to these anomalies. Nor has there been any public update on the alleged environmental anomalies that exist at the complex that still houses the Guyana Revenue Authority. Meanwhile, the Gold Board and the GGMC are, only now, seemingly getting over their own safety and health problems.

The point about all this is to raise the issue of the nexus (or otherwise) between the “alliance” as announced by Minister Scott and its actualization which is what is really important. Truth be told government’s track record on workplace safety and health, across various administrations, has really been nothing to write home about. The state-run occupational safety and health infrastructure has proven to be lacklustre and leaden-footed in tackling what is in fact a serious national workplace safety and health challenge.

It would be good if we could have some further assurance from Minister Scott about the existence – imminent or existing – of the so-called ‘alliance.’ He can do so by, in the first instance putting some meat on the bones of what he said in public regarding the structure and functions of this ‘alliance’ and how it will work in practice. Thereafter, we should be able to look forward to it being rolled out with due haste.

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