Mercury emissions at the Guyana Gold Board

It really ought not to have been this way. Successive political administrations, ignoring their own repetitive articulation of the virtue of safety and health at the workplace, inexplicably failed to practise what they continually preach resulting – by the admission of the present administration – in damage to the health of a still unknown number of workers at the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) to an extent that remains unclear.

The disclosures regarding the mercury-related health issues that have arisen amongst GGMC employees as a consequence of the processing of gold in an area in close proximity to those employees is unacceptable, given the health and environmental lessons that we ought to have learnt from the reckless use of mercury in gold recovery over the decades. Those lessons ought to have sounded a warning and this does not seem to have been the case.

What we are currently witnessing is a consequence of the indifference of successive political administrations, though the incumbents cannot be said to have acted with the greatest alacrity to correct the anomaly. In that sense it must share responsibility for the prevailing state of affairs and move with haste towards long term remedial measures

It is worth mentioning, again, that the first order of business now (above any Commission of Enquiry or any other kind of probe) must be the removal of those workers not directly concerned with the processing of gold to a safe working environment and the putting in place, again immediately, of such measures as are necessary to address the contamination.

Last week the Ministry of Natural Resources announced that government is considering the creation of a high-security facility for the Gold Board Laboratory, presumably separate and apart from the larger population working and transacting business in the same compound housing the GGMC. Knowing what we have long known about the health-related effects of mercury the question that the authorities really has to answer has to do with why this option was not pursued much earlier and why, now that we are aware that the occupants of the complex are being affected by the fumes, they continue to dwell cheek by jowl with the GGB’s gold processing operations. That being said we should not allow the implementation of such a facility (which we are told is available in China and elsewhere) to be delayed until other incidents occur.

The effects of mercury on humans suggest that it is, in any form, poisonous; its toxicity usually affects the neurologic, gastrointestinal and renal organ systems. Again, we still have no clear idea as to the extent to which the workers stationed inside the GGMC complex would have been affected. Mind you, this is not a circumstance in which the predictable excuse of a lack of alternative accommodation will do. It is, as has already been mentioned, the health of those workers that comes first.

Up until now there appears to be no clear time frame for the creation of the promised safe gold processing facility. Are we to assume that things will continue pretty much as they have been over the years until we eventually get around to creating this new safe facility?

Whatever the other issues involved here we must not lose sight of the fact that workplace safety is the highest priority, which is precisely why the GGMC workers and their union must persist in holding government’s feet to the fire on what is a pretty much a cut and dried occupational safety and health matter. And while one notes Minister Trotman’s seeming one-man effort to ‘manage’ the problem, that is not enough. On the whole, it is the government that has responsibility for monitoring the effective enforcement of health and safety laws at both public and private sector workplaces, and it is hardly a secret that, over the years, the variously titled ministries assigned the workplace safety and health portfolio have been weighed and found considerably wanting. We are still to be made aware, for example, of such comprehensive action as has been taken by the authorities to address the safety and health concerns raised more than two years ago with regard to the Camp street building housing the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA), whilst the Ministry of Social Protection has been decidedly leaden-footed in responding to health and safety transgressions that obtain at workplaces. Here, the Russian-run Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) comes immediately to mind.

Any serious investigation – and not only have we been promised one but Natural Resources Minister  Trotman is on record as insisting that the outcomes of the probe be made public – must deal with a number of key issues. These include the wisdom or otherwise of housing the GGB’s laboratory in the same general space occupied by large numbers of employees from another department that had nothing, directly, to do with the processing of gold; the specifics of such safety protocols as have been in place to guard against workers and others in proximity becoming victims of mercury poisoning and the extent to which those were routinely applied; the ongoing monitoring and risk measurement tests that were (or were not) taking place over time; full disclosure to the workers and their families (and reasonable disclosure to the public) regarding the health status of the affected workers; and such arrangements as are in place for government to take full and complete financial responsibility for such medical interventions as might become necessary, if such an arrangement is not already in place.

Any investigation must as well, include a probe into whether or not this matter had ever arisen at the level of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) the union representing GGMC employees and what representation/action had been taken at the union level hitherto. Had the union impressed upon the employer, for example, the importance of ensuring that the requisite safety protocols were fully and effectively operational, and that sufficient consideration was being given to the health of the workers?  Unless these considerations form part of the wider probe there arises the danger that whatever the outcomes they are more than likely to fall short of what is required. In a somewhat broader context, the current mercury problems of the GGB must cause government to reset its radar insofar as official mindfulness of workplace safety and health is concerned.

It goes without saying that such interventions and costs, whatever those eventually turn out to be,  associated with the restoration to good health of affected workers, must be attended to by the state with no limits placed on legitimate expenses. Such payments must be made with alacrity and without any kind of dithering. Meanwhile, immediate steps must be taken to mitigate such risks as might still obtain, bearing in mind the conditions under which gold continues to be processed. Now that there is broader awareness of the problem it would be an act of the most extreme recklessness to continue down the same road.

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