Wed | Oct 28, 2020

Editorial | Sanction ministries for safety breaches

Published:Friday | October 16, 2020 | 12:12 AM

Last Christmas Eve, this newspaper told the Jamaica Fire Brigade to stop pussyfooting with places of entertainment, or any building that was open to the public but didn’t meet existing fire and other safety codes.

We also advised the local government minister, Desmond McKenzie, to whom the Fire Brigade reports, that his plan to publish the names of, and presumably shame, the recalcitrants was not really a solution to the problem. However, Mr McKenzie, as we expected, never followed through with even his proposed half-measure.

The trigger for our attempt at poking the authorities into action was a warning by the fire commissioner, Stewart Beckford, to Christmas revellers to be careful where they partied. His concern, aired a few days earlier, was the fact that of 1,019 places of amusement inspected by his team in the first 11 months of 2019, only 140, approximately 14 per cent, were “certified” as “fit for use”.

“Some of these places are operating without fire alarms, smoke and heat detectors, (or) exit or emergency signs,” the fire commissioner said. Additionally, many of the buildings did not have alternative exits, and in many cases, when alternatives existed they were blocked. To put it in the frankest, if bleak terms, a lot of these clubs would be potential death traps in the event of a significant fire, or similar catastrophe.

The COVID-19 epidemic, and its demand for physical distancing, will lessen the likelihood of big parties this year. But fire safety hazards, as is obvious from this newspaper’s reporting last Sunday, are not solely the province of clubs or other places of entertainment. Neither is it only a private-sector problem.

SHORTCOMINGS AT GOV’T OFFICES

Indeed, shortcomings at a number of government ministries, including the Office of the Prime Minister, highlighted in reports of inspections prised out of the Fire Brigade via Access to Information requests, essentially echoed Commissioner Beckford’s lament against nightclubs last December.

For instance, the headquarters of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce was in May warned for having loose-hanging electrical wires, emergency exit lights that did not work, an absence of fire extinguishers, either no or insufficient or malfunctioning smoke and heat detectors, and for not having a documented emergency evacuation plan. An inspection that same month at the justice ministry turned up many of the same problems. Both ministries were given six months to fix the breaches, which, presumably, they are working on.

A new and modern occupational health and safety law – in which trade unionists, especially, have placed great hope for preventing weaknesses such as were highlighted in The Gleaner’s report – has been on a painfully slow crawl through the Parliament. We hope it eventually passes. However, it should take a bit of legislation for the Government to fulfil its safety obligations to its workers, customers, and to the citizens of Jamaica to whom it is ultimately accountable. If it cannot be counted on to do the right thing in its own offices, it will likely be balancing on a dilemma when it comes to enforcing the rules against private firms and individuals.

That notwithstanding, the Fire Brigade should not compromise people’s safety in an acquiescence to power.

Indeed, under the Fire Brigade Act, when prescribed safety regulations are not adhered to, Chief Beckford can not only take people to court – although the fine for breaches are minuscule – but can bar the occupation of buildings and their use for commercial purposes. Which it should do in the case of the offending ministries.

In the meantime, Minister McKenzie should get around to publishing that list of shame – especially those of ministries, departments and agencies that are in breach of the law.