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'Injured and ignored' - Labour Ministry short of investigators to probe workplace accidents

Published:Sunday | February 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

A shortage of investigators has left the Ministry of Labour and Social Security without the manpower to probe more than half the workplace accidents reported to it the last fiscal year.

According to the 2013-2014 annual report produced by the ministry, it received 383 accident reports for the year, with 204 qualified for investigation.

However, with the limited number of investigators at its disposal, only 91 of these accidents were investigated. Under Section 21 of the Factories Act, businesses are required to report to the ministry fatal accidents or those that cause an individual to be absent from work for two or more days.

Given the dwindling number of investigators in the ministry's Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Division, the investigation of these accident reports as well as the routine inspection of companies to ensure the maintenance of minimum occupational safety and health standards for the protection of workers have been curtailed.

"What has happened during that time period (2013-2014) is we lost nearly half the staff, so basically, it was more of a human resource challenge," Andrew Dale from the OSH Division told The Sunday Gleaner.

"We will just have to work with the present compliment that we have, but they are currently in training," added Dale.

FEWER INSPECTIONS

Only 1,906 inspections were carried out by the OSH Division between 2013 and 2014, which represents a 10 per cent decrease ,or 219 fewer inspections than in 2012-2013. The OSH Division is responsible for encouraging and promoting the maintenance of safety and health standards in the workplace for the protection of all employees.

The aim of having companies report accidents is not to determine culpability, but to identify those companies where physical investigations need to be carried out to prevent a recurrence.

For 2013-2014, there were seven-on-the-job deaths reported to the ministry and a 74 per cent increase in workplace accidents when compared to 2012-2013.

Despite this increase in the number of reported cases, Dale argued that some companies are still not reporting accidents out of ignorance of the law. He said the division would like to embark on a public education campaign to inform employers of their responsibilities, however, the limited number of investigators to look into accidents when reported presents a challenge to this ambition.

However, founder of Future Services International, Yaneek Page, believes it is the workers who need to be educated about their rights when they are injured on the job.

Her organisation provides support and legal funding for persons wanting to mount a civil lawsuit and includes persons who have been injured on the job.

UNAWARE OF RIGHTS

"Too many people are not empowered because they are not aware of their rights and obligations as employees. If we are going to talk about any solution, that is where we are going to need to start," said Page.

She is concerned that in several cases, workers injured on the job are unable to secure any financial assistance from their company because it does not have any insurance for workers or refuses to pay out of its cash flow.

"It is awful when these people have no compensation to get because the company has no money and the employees are left holding nothing," she argued.

"There is nothing worse for us than seeing people come in to us and they have awful burns. You have women burned up because they are operating in a cook shop, in a kitchen, where you have no safeguards and something happens and people get burned up with hot oil," she added.

NAME CHANGE

She charged that the proposed Occupational Safety and Health Act, which has been lingering in the pipeline for more than a decade, could offer more protection to workers.

"The conditions that people operate in in Jamaica in many of these businesses are a disgrace. People are operating in sick offices and nothing happens. Some places, they wouldn't have their own children operating there, but they are happy having other people work for them under those conditions," lamented Page.

"You have too many companies that are only focused on profits and not on people," she said.