Stepping up our occupational safety and health record

 The April 17 issue of the Stabroek News published an article (page 17) in which it quotes General Secretary of the Guyana Trades Union Congress Lincoln Lewis as saying that the Chinese-owned Guyana Manganese Inc. (GMI) should be sanctioned for, according to an official of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Department of the Ministry of Social Protection, allowing its employees to work “without the requisite protective equipment” prior to some of those workers falling ill after working in tunnels at the company’s Matthews Ridge manganese mining operations.  

Unsurprisingly, we have since heard nothing from the Ministry on the matter of whether it intends to take action against GMI for what appears to be an open and shut case of blatant transgression of the country’s safety and health laws. 

Historically, the Ministry of Social Protection (it used to be called the Ministry of Labour, previously) has, over the years, been markedly indifferent to its responsibility in the matter of the effective enforcement of workplace safety regulations. Notably, it has been slow, in those instances where transgressions occur, to move to impose the requisite penalties against the transgressors; so that however delinquent workplaces have been in their transgression of safety and health laws the Ministry itself has been no less culpable in terms of its own overarching responsibilities.

 In the instance of the GMI transgression, incidentally, the reason proffered by the company was that its protective gear had been held up at Customs. This, in itself  is an utterly absurd story since that is decidedly not a circumstance that justifies the workers being sent into the tunnels without the requisite protection.

 But then, as has already been mentioned, the Ministry of Social Protection continues to be afflicted by a longstanding inattention to matters of workplace safety in both the public and private sectors and the trade union movement, of course, is woefully lacking in the human resource capability to provide cover in this area.

We had, over time, benefitted from insights into the safety and health indiscretions at the majority Russian-owned Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) (which, for all we know still persist) and the indifference on the part of government to the problem, over several years. Here, it is worth mentioning that GMI is a subsidiary of the Chinese-owned bauxite-mining company Bosai, a circumstance that leads one to ask whether foreign companies enjoy some sort of waiver from national safety and health laws.

One raises this question of what appears to be the limited enforcement authority of the Ministry’s OSH Department of the Ministry against the backdrop of the advent of a local oil and gas industry and the likely profusion of foreign companies operating here and the implications of this for a far more robust mechanism for the enforcement of OSH regulations.

But foreign-owned companies are not the only culprits here. Some local private sector entities have an unenviable track record for being altogether unmindful of their safety and health bona fides. This newspaper is aware of one case currently engaging the Ministry of Social Protection in which an employee, a female, has been relieved of her job by one of the country’s largest locally owned private sector companies for refusing to work in an area from which she had been previously re-located having fallen ill on account of the emission of toxic fumes from an on-plant manufacturing operation. We   continue to monitor that matter.

It is the high profile instances of safety and health transgressions in the gold mining sector that attract the most public attention, a circumstance that is due to the frequency of fatalities in the sector. What is noteworthy is that safety and health transgressions in the gold mining industry occur with monotonous regularity despite the surfeit of global public awareness initiatives and international conventions (the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment being perhaps one of the best-known of such conventions and one to which Guyana is a signatory) and what we are told are the safety and health awareness sessions undertaken by the GGMC’s Mining School notwithstanding. Here again, and notwithstanding what, it is safe to assume, is the GGMC’s awareness that mining deaths result, frequently, from unacceptable safety and health-related risks run by owners and managers of gold mining operations, we hear little if anything of such action as is taken against persons bearing health and safety responsibility in the sector. In the instance of the gold-mining industry it is widely believed that the extent of the lobby wielded by private operators in the industry may well allow accidents, even fatalities, to pass without undue repercussions for the culpable parties.

This newspaper’s own alternative investigations have confirmed the veracity of Mr. Lewis’ claim that a scarcity of adequately qualified personnel to go around, so to speak, may be responsible in large measure for the very limited safety and oversight across sectors in both state and non-state agencies. On the other hand and over many years the Ministry’s OSH Department has faced criticisms linked to charges of indifference and inertia and there have even been instances in which aggrieved parties have made claims of collusion between private sector workplaces and the OSH Department in order to sweep transgressions under the carpet and set aside compensation claims.

 It will be recalled that during the earliest period of the coalition administration the issue of safety and health at the workplace had benefitted from a higher than usual profile though what appeared to be official efforts to roll back a low level of safety and health mindfulness at workplaces was met by some level of pushback from the entities. Whether that may have caused   the Ministry of Social Protection to take a backward step on the issue is unclear though, these days, it is widely felt that a high level of safety and health transgressions are now par for the course in many private sector entities across the country. Interestingly, the country’s leading Business Support Organizations (BSO’s) have, over the years, been, for the most part, silent on this issue, a circumstance which, one might contend, has contributed to the lack of any real pressure for change.

 It would, of course, not have escaped the attention of potential oil and gas-related investors that the country’s safety and health are nothing to write home about – so to speak – and these may, in some instances, consider that good reason to stay away or else, to simply show up anyway and to proceed to take advantage of the weaknesses. Here, it is not a question of simply being critical of our less than salutary  workplace safety and health record but of reminding government of the need to raise its game (here the point made by Mr. Lewis about significantly upgrading both the policing and investigation capabilities of the OSH Department becomes relevant) in the period ahead to cater for the much greater role that an effective safety and health regime will have to play in the protection of workers in a changing economic environment.

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