Why the hold-up on workforce safety?

Published: Monday | January 21, 2013 Comments 0

By Garth A. Rattray

In 2006, a 21-year-old man was working with an aggregate factory that made building blocks. He was cleaning the inside of the machine that chops stones into small pieces when a co-worker accidentally turned it on. He was mangled so badly that he lost both his lower limbs high above the knees (almost through the hip joint on one side). The blades also injured his genitals and hands.

He somehow survived, spent many months in the hospital, and took a long time to relearn how to sit up. He had to sue the company for negligence. The Sunday Observer (January 13, 2013) carried an article summarising the circumstances leading up to the award of J$40m based on 64 per cent total body disability.

And, right after the passage of Hurricane Sandy, two Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) contractors were badly injured while trying to restore power to customers in Discovery Bay, St Ann. Twenty-seven-year-old Delroy Morgan was accidentally electrocuted when the power to that section of the distribution line was turned back on as they were still working on it (The Gleaner, October 31, 2012). The other injured party, a 29-year-old man, lost a lot of tissue from his fingers and forearms - he received in-hospital treatment, physical therapy, and plastic surgery.

Legal loopholes

The ultimate blame for the horrific accidents lies in the lack of proper safety protocols/procedures. However, blame must also be assigned to the lack of the Operational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in Jamaica.

OSHA would have required that both companies have in place a 'lockout, tag-out' safety system for working in confined spaces, for energy-using machines, and for hazardous power sources. If the act were in place, that stone-chopping machine and the JPS power-distribution line would have been safe to work on. They would have been, "isolated and rendered inoperative" during cleaning, repair or maintenance activities.

The act would have, among numerous other things, set out stringent occupational-safety guidelines that would have significantly reduced the possibility of any harm coming to workers. The act would also compel companies to make financial/compensatory provisions for the victim(s), in the event of a mishap, without forcing them to resort to protracted and expensive litigation proceedings. The proposed act, a draft (work on which began in 1998), was put before Cabinet in April 2004, but is still not even a bill.

PROSPECTS OF OSHA

Currently, Jamaican workers are afforded a modicum of protection under The Factories Act (which incorporates The Factories Regulations 1961, The Building Operators and Works of Engineering Construction 1968 and The Ship and Docks Regulations 1968), and The Occupiers' Liability Act - 1969. Those two acts are specific for prevailing circumstances within certain industries and, therefore, limited in their coverage of occupations.

However, when it is eventually passed, The Occupational Health And Safety Act - 2004 will cover all aspects of the work environment and will supersede all other such acts, for the most part.

The bauxite companies, for example, already operate under OSHA guidelines, but Jamaica needs OSHA to make our entire labour environment much safer for us and attractive to foreign investors. Although employers will have to train workers and institute safety and emergency guidelines, workers will be held responsible for their role in safety procedures.

So, what's holding up OSHA? Could it be that the Government (under both administrations) finds the following factors prohibitive: the financial outlay needed to institute the act (public and worker education; modification of work contracts; safety equipment, additional government staff for regulation, monitoring, inspection, compliance and maintenance of standards; mandatory in-house medical facilities; stringent screening procedures)?

I hope that we are not being penny wise and pound foolish while our citizens suffer and/or die.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com

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