Occupational Safety and Health

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) marks April 28 globally as Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) day, promoting the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases. In Guyana, the month of April has been quite abuzz with matters relating to OHS – some encouraging, and others downright depressing.

One of the promising occurrences was the announcement by the Ministry of Social Protection that it was updating Guyana’s OSH laws and regulations pertaining to the oil and gas sector. In 2016, the Ministry had indicated that it was updating the country’s OSH policy with help from a team of experts from the ILO, headed by Ms Claudia Coenjaerts.

Also occurring this month, was an OSH exhibition by the University of Guyana at its Turkeyen Campus. Speaking at the exhibition’s launching ceremony, Minister Keith Scott enthused that, “The exhibition provides a perfect educational opportunity to workers, employers and students to learn more about workplace safety and health practices.” In Linden, workers from public and private sector entities combined to participate in an ‘Occupational Safety & Health Month Awareness and Fitness Walk’, marching under the theme, ‘Generation Safe & Healthy by Improving the Safety and Health of Young Workers.’ Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott was there also to address those participating.

While it is perfectly easy and quite natural to be cynical about these ostensibly positive developments, as they mirror annual occurrences of institutional posturing whenever internationally prescribed observations come around, this time there is a notable difference: the steadily advancing behemoth that is the oil and gas sector.

In a country where posturing and promises are taken as signs of progress, and where persons who do exactly what they are being paid to do consider themselves to have conferred some great favour on the population, preening photo ops and lofty speeches are usually par for the course. On occasions such as OSH month, usually very little if anything practical and sensible ever happens afterwards to implement the various promises made to the populace. Walks, exhibitions and other similar public displays go a far way to engendering public interest in and awareness of OSH matters, but only sensible implementation and careful monitoring and control and the penalizing of non-compliant entities can bring any real benefits to the workers at risk.

Recently, it was perhaps a painful coincidence that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission became embroiled in an OSH controversy affecting its workers in the city, where gold laced with mercury was being burnt in its Brickdam compound. While the full extent of the negative effects on employees is still not known, the incident was a sign of the wilful blindness and inertia that affects many organisations in Guyana, in terms of recognising a potential problem and acting with despatch to resolve it.

The GGMC is well versed in OHS non-compliance issues, usually in mining areas, and it is perhaps a brutal irony that, as it steps up its demands for much needed compliance by mining sector operators, bolstering its policing capability with alliances with other state agencies under the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Warden programme, it should itself be found lacking in OSH practices in its own house.

In August 2017, we reported on the OSH department of the Ministry of Social Protection being “concerned” and wanting to determine the “causal factors of industrial accidents within the realms of the employer-employee framework”, in relation to a spate of industrial accidents in our aviation industry that left two pilots dead. There are accidents which happen from time to time in the construction industry, sometimes fatal, but without any publicly available database of offenders to inform a clueless public that a certain contractor might have a history of unsafe practices putting workers and others at risk.

The same goes for the riverboat transportation industry, the minibus and even the hire car transportation sector, where there is little or no sense among the operators of an obligation to exercise specific safe practices or risk being penalised and being negatively recorded on a publicly available register.

Occupational Safety and Health in Guyana is not given the level of importance and urgency that it requires, and the officers tasked with this responsibility are not given the level of continuous training, tools, autonomy and authority to exercise control without fear or favour. Like many other ills that ail this beautiful land of ours, the state of non-compliance with OSH matters is an ingrained part of the operations of many institutions and the OSH department certainly has its work cut out if it is to have a meaningful and visible impact on the status quo here.

However, the awakening giant that is the oil and gas sector is set to change everything about the way business is done in Guyana. Global business standards and ethics will bar many Guyanese entities from participating in the burgeoning business opportunities of the oil and gas sector because of the lack of one thing: minimum standards compliance.

Critical among the compliance issues will be those related to OHS.

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