While government has committed to relocating the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) laboratory from the Brickdam compound housing the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) “within the shortest possible time,” workers who walked out last Friday due to safety concerns remain opposed to its operations continuing in the interim.
In a press statement on Friday, the Ministry of Natural Resources announced that it had convened a special meeting with officials of the GGB and the GGMC to discuss and resolve ongoing issues over the threat of mercury emissions from laboratory.
It said the critical decision was taken that the laboratory would be moved “so as to safeguard the health of workers of the GGMC and Gold Board.” The intention of the ministry is “to have the laboratory moved in the first instance and then the administrative offices of the Board thereafter.”
According to the statement, the coming days will see suitable sites being scouted for both short and long term solutions, with all parties resolved to cooperate to ensure the minimal disruption of operations.
The meeting was attended by Dr. David Singh, head of a recently-appointed committee set up to review the laboratory’s operations, who shared his expert knowledge and advice on the best steps to be taken to ensure success and a smooth transition of operations.
The workers, however, are not comforted and remain uncertain whether they will be returning to work tomorrow.
“Mercury is mercury. It doesn’t just disappear. It’s in the carpets, on the floor and the walls. They would need to cleanse the area before I felt safe,” one worker told Sunday Stabroek.
The worker further noted that while they will show up for work on Monday, they are unsure whether they will be returning to the building.
“The ministry is strange…management decided it was not safe and the lab should be closed immediately. Within the shortest possible time is not immediately,” the worker related.
Responding to this concern, Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman told Sunday Stabroek that he empathised with the workers but the country could not afford to have the lab out of operation.
“I am not angry with them for feeling that way. If I were in their position, I would react the same. In fact, I am definitely not comfortable with having the lab operational under these circumstances but currently gold is our main foreign exchange earner. If I could close it [the lab] tomorrow I would but I can’t,” he explained.
According to the minister, persons are spending every possible hour attempting to find a location which is suitable for relocation.
“We need a space that is secure and safe. Where there is gold and other precious metals is an area which generates interest. We are trying hard to find a suitable space which is why we used those words—within the shortest possible time,” Trotman noted.
On Friday, the GGMC’s office was shut down after scores of workers walked out, in protest against the ongoing mercury burning at the lab.
A source reported that contrary to the claims made by officials, tests conducted at the office showed high levels of mercury in certain areas at the Commission. The source stated, too, that the majority of affected employees registered high mercury levels within their systems.
According to the source, the National Insurance Scheme accepts anything above the level 3 as an industrial accident and many employees have seen the mercury level in their body show a level of 25 and under.
“Less than quarter of the staff have below 5 and more than 100 were tested. The minister is talking about the readings but the Gold Board is still burning,” the source said, while noting that scores of workers were also on leave.
The GGMC’s Board met on Friday with the Commissioner of the GGMC and mandated him to write to Trotman to cease the operations of the lab immediately. Following the board’s meeting, there was a managerial meeting, during which it was decided that the environment was unsafe to work in and staff subsequently vacated the premises immediately.
The source explained that the managers based their decisions around the occupational health and safety rules, which state that employees should not have to work in an unsafe environment.
While the source was unable to state the exact number of employees that left, he explained that a majority of the staff was already on sick leave due to having higher than normal levels of mercury in their systems and stated that only about 12 persons stayed back to finish off important work.
The source said that the workers do not want to return to work until the GGB’s lab ceases its operations, is moved to a safer location, or changes its approach and finds another way of burning the gold where the emissions will not be at its current dangerous levels.
“It has to stop or they have to do something about the mercury emissions. If they have a system that does not emit mercury then yes, we would work. They could buy a condenser that will condense the mercury into its liquid state which is less harmful,” the source added, while stating that there are still traces of mercury on the walls, carpets and other places and the entire area has to be “washed down, fumigated or sanitised” before the workers return.